By: Swastika Pokharel
Stephen P. Cohen, an expert on South Asian Politics and former Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes in his book Shooting for a Century: The India-Pakistan Conundrum that Pakistan and India are doing the unthinkable and that is shooting at each other in the Twenty-First century, across one of the most dangerous borders of the world. He adds on to say that Pakistan-India rivalry is likely to continue beyond a century, which means that the conflict may surpass 2047. The author aspires to be proven wrong. Recent developments in Pakistan-India relations have risen hopes of better relations once again.
The attempts at normalization are quite normal between Pakistan and India. The two usually hostile neighbors have experienced several such occasions of cautious optimism where both the countries from the lowest ebb in the relations have moved to a semblance of normalization. Pakistan has kept dialogue on the table and has repeatedly been saying that the onus is on India to create an “enabling environment” for talks. The ongoing attempts at improving relations between Pakistan and India can be categorized as the eighth time, where both countries have realized the need to move beyond conflict. The same realization resulted in 2015 Comprehensive Dialogue, Composite Dialogue in 2012 and in 2003, the Agra Summit of 2001, Lahore Declaration of 1999, Simla Agreement of 1972, and Tashkent Agreement of 1966. Pakistan and India have also faced off against one another in 1947-48, 1965, 1971 and 1999. And also have had countless skirmishes, mostly in the disputed mountains and valleys of the Kashmir region.
The moments in the history of Pakistan-India peace efforts were adversely affected by the internal dynamics, i.e., the apparent lack of internal conviction needed for sustainability of peace, and perhaps various internal stakeholders including military and political leadership vacillated in their efforts. Due to these internal compulsions and pressures both countries chose to invest in politics of hate for short term gains. More so on the Indian side than on Pakistan, and recent past is a testimony to that.
Mani Shankar Aiyar, an Indian politician and former civil servant diplomat had called for an ‘uninterrupted and uninterruptible’ dialogue between India and Pakistan in 2018. However, the talks between the two countries have been halted since August 2014, when the BJP, soon after taking over the reins of power in New Delhi, had called off scheduled foreign secretary-level talks to show its strong displeasure at Pakistan’s usual interaction with the Kashmiri leadership. Worse, the hostility between the two countries acquired a new peak during the past two years, especially after the militant attack on Pathankot airbase, the suicide attack on a police force convoy at Lethpora (Pampore), and the Balakot airstrike drama carried out by India in February 2019 and finally the abrogation of Article 370 and 35A of Indian Constitution in August 2019.
General Bajwa’s statement is not in any way indicative of abandonment of the Kashmiri cause. It is in alignment with the new thrust of Pakistan’s foreign policy, which is pivoted on geoeconomics. Thus, the desire to normalize the relations rather than cold war situation between the two protagonists of the region.
Pakistan-India relations can fit into William Zartman thesis of ‘mutually hurting stalemate.’ According to Zartman, the parties to the conflict may feel the pain of mutually hurting stalemate at the same time but not necessarily at the same level. They both calculate the cost benefit analysis of conflict and peace and come to the realization that they pay heavily and gain nothing by being in a state of constant conflict. In some way, coming to the ripe moment to resolve the conflict and this may have three elements: gains and losses, deadlock, and the realization of the deadlock by the parties. The question is, has Pakistan-India impasse reached that point?
The sustainability of the ‘newfound resolve’ to improve relations, keeping in mind the fact that the last five years have seen a substantial transformation in the regional and global backdrop of relations, may have the answer. The conflict matrix of the region has changed dramatically and continues to transform. Biden is likely to take a more nuanced approach towards China, seeking avenues to cooperate in an otherwise competitive relationship. This multidimensional approach will create a more difficult geopolitical path for New Delhi, pushing India to once again balance relations with its northern neighbor. Even slight improvements in U.S.-China ties may impact India’s strategic calculus.
The domestic challenges faced by the Modi government have also triggered the desire to engage again. Most political pundits say that U.S.’ withdrawal from Afghanistan and China-India skirmishes in the Himalayas, which left India with a bloody nose, are among the factors that have made both countries change their behavior towards each other. India is also facing defamation at the international level, especially in Western and European countries for human rights violations in Kashmir and going against the spirit of Indian secularism and constitutionalism. The compulsions for normalization are piling up for India. Pakistan is also grappling with acute economic crises and confronting challenges passed by the Financial Action Task Force grey list. On the other hand, analysts in Pakistan believe the freshly unfolding situation in the region points to a possible alliance bringing Russia and Pakistan together along with China and possibly Turkey. However, at the same time, Pakistan wants a balance in its relationship with its Eastern neighbor and its traditional Western ally. In the great power competition brewing in the larger Indo-Pacific region between Pakistan’s old partner, the U.S., and its staunch ally, China, Islamabad is seeking for balance. This has also triggered a change in Pakistan’s behavior. What trumps all is Pakistan’s new geoeconomic pitch.
The ongoing developments include polite tweets and warm letter writing diplomacy between Prime Minister Imran Khan and Prime Minister Modi, going back to observing 2003 ceasefire along the LoC, and restoration of Indus Water Commission talks after 2.5 years. However, the statement by Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa in the Islamabad Security Dialogue 2021, saying that it is time for India and Pakistan to “bury the past and move forward,” has created ripples in both the countries. He added that there is positivity on the other side also, Kashmir is important, but both India and Pakistan should go after low-hanging fruits. This of course is seen by many as very encouraging. Prior to this, in February 2021 COAS had indicated the same while speaking at the graduation ceremony of PAF Academy, Risalpur. He categorically said, “it is time to extend hand of peace in all directions.”
COAS, in the Islamabad Security Dialogue 2021, described the country’s geoeconomic shift in terms of four “core pillars”: peace (including inside the country); non-interference in the affairs of other states; trade and connectivity within the region; and “sustainable development and prosperity through establishment of investment and economic hubs within the region.” He also said, “Pakistan is a peace-loving country that has rendered great sacrifices for regional and global peace. We stand firmly committed to the ideal of mutual respect and peaceful co-existence.” COAS further went on to say that “despite rising security challenges, Pakistan has been one of the few [countries] that has resisted the temptation of involving itself in an arms race”, citing a decrease in the country’s defense expenditure. “This has not been easy, especially when you live in a hostile and unstable neighborhood. But having said that, let me say that we are ready to improve our environment by resolving all our outstanding issues with our neighbors through dialogue in a dignified and peaceful manner.”
General Bajwa’s statement is not in any way indicative of abandonment of the Kashmiri cause. It is in alignment with the new thrust of Pakistan’s foreign policy, which is pivoted on geoeconomics. Thus, the desire to normalize the relations rather than cold war situation between the two protagonists of the region. Connecting his statement to Cohen’s argument, Pakistan and India have a room for creating Westphalian peace by:
▪ Their borders and governments should be assured of legitimacy and integrity, fully backed by all internal stakeholders.
▪ They should not try to undermine or transform each other.
▪ They should own the responsibility to prevent their territories from being used to assault another state.
In this context, normalization of relations that General Bajwa put forward may be viewed as a green signal for strategic realignment of relations. The top-down approach may be more effective, as the nature of conflict is largely territorial and is driven by hard power. Improving strategic ties may accommodate political, economic, social, and cultural relations. But perhaps most importantly, during the Q/A session, at the Islamabad Security Dialogue, General Bajwa categorically has said that he does not want to spill the beans, but there is positivity on the other side as well, thus indicating reciprocity from India.
Prime Minister Imran Khan also at the Security Dialogue and on several other occasions has emphasized the importance of having functional relations with India as extremely important to untap the geoeconomic potential of Pakistan’s location. This is evident from the fact that during the times of high political crises, the civil and military leadership of Pakistan has made a conscious effort to be on the same page, especially with its relationships with the U.S., China, and India.
There is optimism and skepticism regarding the ‘New Engagement’. Will it be forward looking, and not the ‘Dialogue of the deaf’, that have taken place in the past, where meetings happen, photo opportunities take place, and the glamour and drama of high-profile diplomacy is on full display. However, nothing beyond tepid Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) is achieved. The CBMs that should eventually culminate into conflict resolution and consolidation of relations are absent.
For seventy-four years, Pakistan and India have invested in the politics of conflict. The rationale, logic and call of sanity all demand to move beyond the cold war mentality of confrontation and competitive security to a twenty-first century framework, that involves nations to be connected by shared economic and security interests. The sharing of economic and security interests has unimaginable potentials for growth and progress of this region. There is a tangible change in the mindset, regarding relations with India in Pakistan, this change needs to be cultivated and reciprocated. Pakistan and India have tried everything, they fought wars, used other means than wars, have indulged in propaganda war against each other, and have also tried to talk to each other and have failed several times. Let this thaw be sustainable and culminate into something which may change the fate of this region, and more importantly, its people.