Forget the loons and the kooks, the puff-chested braggarts and the incorrigible denialists, and ask yourself this: what is the Pak-India relationship really about?

At its core, as defined in the present era, stripped of hype and hyperbole, denuded of posturing and silliness, what is it that Pakistan and India need of each other in strategic terms?

Not trade, not normalisation, none of the aspirational stuff – what can the two of them simply not ignore about the other?

For India, it’s pretty straightforward: avoid another Mumbai. That means, can’t ignore the anti-India lot, Lashkar-e-Taiba and the like, sloshing around in Pakistan.

Combined, the Pakistani and Indian responses make for some fireworks and a great deal of noise. But it does little to change the contradiction at the heart of the relationship.

From an Indian perspective, anti-India militancy in Pakistan has to be the baseline – no state, government or security establishment can possibly ignore it. Nor should they. Nor will they.

For Pakistan, you have to probe a little more, but it comes into view all right. It’s not Kashmir, at least not Kashmir in the conventional sense described here.

The K-boat sailed a long time ago and nothing more will be wrested, at the negotiating table or on the battlefield, than roughly the four-point solution of the Mush era.

So, unfinished business or not, what we’re lectured about or not, Kashmir is hardly a strategic core, whose presence or absence directly determines the very course of the country.

At most Kashmir is an institutional core – allowing the boys to justify their exalted status and internal predominance.

Conventional military gap

So, what then? It’s the Indian war machine, specifically, its conventional capabilities. It’s the only thing that’s unsustainable – the threat of a chasm between the conventional capabilities of the two countries.

The Kashmir dispute we can sustain, water we can probably keep squabbling over, no-trade status we can continue, people-to-people contact we can ignore, but there’s an inherent divergence in the conventional capabilities of us and them that folk here gloss over with a little lie.

That lie is this: the wider the conventional gap grows – as India plays catch-up with and overtakes Pakistan in various aspects of the military realm – all that will happen is that Pakistan will lower the nuclear threshold and hence Pakistan will still be able to protect itself. Neat and deadly.

But follow that logic a bit. We already have an example: from the Indian parliament attack to Operation Parakram to the quasi-mooting of Cold Start to Pakistan developing smaller missiles that can carry miniaturised nuclear warheads, the whole spiral has already played out.

Great. We feel safe. Here’s the problem though: tactical nuclear missiles only respond to the threat of a rapid and limited ground invasion by the Indians. There are a whole bunch of other options.

A sea blockade by the Indian navy or air strikes by the Indian air force, for example. Or, if we want to get really fancy, imagine a multi-day episode like Mumbai that triggers an OBL-style Indian raid on Muridke before the militant attack is snuffed out in India.

Much of that is fantasy, either because India can only dream of such capabilities or because it’s insanely expensive to assemble. But, given its economic trajectory, given the money it can set aside for its military, given its external relationships and given the highly skilled pockets of labour available to it, India can afford to at least take a partial stab at fantasy.

Unsolvable riddle

Then what? To every new conventional capability India threatens or acquires, Pakistan can’t simply lower the nuclear threshold further. That would be absurd and unworkable for a bunch of reasons, not least because it would mean us sitting on a hair-trigger that would give the world jitters.

So, in every realistic scenario, Pakistan cannot let the conventional parity with India grow too out of whack. And in every realistic scenario, Pakistan simply doesn’t have the resources to compete conventionally – if India decides to hit the accelerator.

Either it would bankrupt us à la the Soviets and the Cold War or it would drive us to do something desperate before the point of no return is reached.

That, then, is the core of the Pak-India relationship: the intolerable threat of militancy for India and the unsustainable proposition of a conventional arms race for Pakistan.

And that also explains why the relationship is again near insoluble – the fear of one feeds the fear of the other.

Why should Pakistan give up on the proxy threat when it can’t compete in the long term in the conventional realm and militancy is the one thing India doesn’t have an answer to?

And why would India give up the option of pulling away conventionally if it’s the one thing that could make Pakistan consider giving up its proxies for good?

The worst thing about the Pak-India relationship is not that it doesn’t make sense, but that, when you look at it closely, the damn thing makes a kind of perverse sense.

Which brings us to the present. Pakistan’s hedge against a possible arms race with India has been to stabilise ties with the US: chummy up to the Americans and keep the weapons flowing while there’s a hawk in Delhi. It’s no accident that ties with the US are at their most stable in years.

India’s response to the continuing militancy threat has been to change tack from Manmohan Singh’s tentative diplomacy to Modi flirting with the proxy threat against Pakistan.

Combined, the Pakistani and Indian responses make for some fireworks and a great deal of noise. But it does little to change the contradiction at the heart of the relationship.

An intolerable threat for the Indian side and an unsustainable proposition for the Pakistani side is a riddle no one appears to have the answer to.

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