It is well known that Indian politicians are hard-headed while serving their personal interests, but faint-hearted while dealing with national interests. India’s Pakistan policy, for example, is still based on hopes and expectations, rather than any farsighted strategy. The Indian wishful thinking on Pakistan was again on display at the SAARC summit in the Maldives.

After meeting with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Pakistan Prime Minister Gilani thanked India for its two recent favours: At WTO not vetoing the European Union’s special trade concessions for Pakistan, and helping Pakistan to enter the United Nations Security Council. Singh, whose diplomacy still subsists on dreams, however, has secured no reciprocal concession from Pakistan, not even the actual grant of MFN status to India.

The EU trade concessions to Pakistan are important because they exempt 75 Pakistani products from tariff for three years. This will allow Pakistan to earn several hundred million dollars through tariff-free exports to the 27-nation EU market. At the trade committee of the World Trade Organization, India first objected to this EU move because it violated WTO rules for a level-playing field among all trading partners. But last month, India withdrew that objection, without having first secured MFN status from Pakistan. India granted Pakistan MFN status 15 years ago.

In a fundamentally competitive world marked by aggressive pursuit of relative gains, Indian diplomacy since the Nehru years has stood out for not learning from mistakes and continuing to operate on ingenuous premises. While important countries have pursued strategies of “balance of power”, “balance of threat” or “balance of interest”, Indian foreign policy has not been organised around a distinct strategic doctrine, except for a period under Indira Gandhi. 

It is not uncommon for Indian policy-makers to feed to the nation dreams sold to them by others. The 21st-century has thus far passed on a dreamy note, first under Atal Bihari Vajpayee and now Singh.  In the absence of realistic, goal-oriented statecraft, the propensity to act in haste and repent at leisure runs deep in Indian foreign policy.   It has ignored the sound advice of Talleyrand, the famous foreign minister of Napoleon, “By no means show too much zeal”.

In dealing with Pakistan, India has assumed that Islamabad will do what it does well – jettison beliefs, perceptions and policies overnight.  The fact is that while India’s Pakistan policy continues to send out confusing signals, Pakistan’s India policy has remained consistent for long. Pakistan’s antipathy towards India is congenital, and it has no intention of discarding terrorism as an instrument of state policy.

Vajpayee himself exemplified India’s shortsighted approach when he took Nawaz Sharif by surprise by embracing him at Wagah.  Then in the Lahore Declaration he allowed Jammu and Kashmir to be singled out by name as a bilateral issue awaiting resolution.  When Pervez Musharraf staged a coup in Pakistan, only to get internationally isolated, it was Vajpayee who helped in his international rehabilitation by inviting me out of the blue to Agra for a summit. Today, Singh is lending Pakistan a helping hand just when the U.S. has mounted increasing pressure on Islamabad. In fact, some prominent American strategists are calling for the “containment” of Pakistan.

Singh, however, wants to “open a new chapter of peace” with Pakistan. He even hailed Gilani, a well-known hardliner, as “a man of peace.” This week, three days after the Indian Home Secretary said there has been no change in Pakistan’s official support for terrorist groups, aging External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna declared that the trust deficit with Pakistan is “shrinking.” India has never had a more clueless external affairs minister or a weaker PM with a credibility problem than it does today. 

When history is written, will Pakistan be seen as having betrayed India’s trust?  Or will India be viewed as having betrayed common sense and thrown caution to the wind?  India has distinguished itself by reposing trust in adversaries and then crying foul when they deceive it.  One such “perfidy” hastened the death of Nehru, who confessed to the nation the day the Chinese invaded in 1962: “Perhaps there are not many instances in history where one country has gone out of her way to be friendly and cooperative with the government and people of another country and to plead their cause in the councils of the world, and then that country returns evil for good”.

India does not give up bad habits easily. Gushy expectations and wishful thinking continue to blight Indian foreign policy. India’s interests suffer due to a shifting, personality-driven policy, rooted neither in a strategic vision nor institutionalised planning.  Singh’s record offers an excellent case study.

He has time and again demonstrated his inability to stick to his stated position. The new bonhomie with Pakistan actually mocks the memory of those killed in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist siege that was planned on Pakistani soil by Pakistani state actors. Pakistan not only has done nothing to bring the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks to justice, but has also managed to get India to unconditionally resume dialogue at the highest level. In fact, it has even got India to dole out concessions.

Singh, for his part, has refused to learn from his past blunders at Sharm el-Sheikh (where he included Baluchistan) and Havana (where he turned the terror sponsor into a fellow victim of terror by setting up the infamous Joint Anti-Terror Mechanism). It is thus no surprise that he has returned from the Maldives empty-handed.

More broadly, until India absorbs the fundamentals of international relations, it will continue to get “evil for good”.  The fundamentals include leverage, reciprocity, and negotiating strategies that do not give away the bottom line.  For more than half a century, India has put itself on the defensive by publicly articulating its Kashmir bottom line as the starting line – turning the Line of Control into the international border. And as Singh has demonstrated, India has yet to absorb the fact that the first principle of diplomacy is reciprocity.