Even as Indian and Pakistani guns continue to thunder along the Line of Control in Kashmir, there are several signals of a desire on both sides to improve relations.
Most notably, Pakistan’s army chief has on several occasions articulated an openness to evolving a modus vivendi with India, dubbed the ‘Bajwa doctrine’. Recently, the Indian defence minister stated that such peace overtures from Pakistan will be reciprocated.
The Indian military attaché was invited to the Pakistan Day parade and accepted. Pakistan hosted India with other Shanghai Cooperation Organisation members to discuss regional terrorism. In September, Pakistan and India will participate in SCO joint counterterrorism exercises in Russia. Last month, Pakistan hosted a Track II dialogue with India.
For its part, Pakistan has consistently advocated resumption of the Composite (now Comprehensive) Dialogue with India. And while it was preoccupied with fighting terrorism within its territory and from across its western border, it made strategic sense for Pakistan to seek a calm eastern frontier.
Unfortunately, since its inception, Narendra Modi’s BJP government made normalisation conditional on Pakistan’s disavowal of support to the Kashmiri freedom struggle and acceptance of culpability for Mumbai and other terrorist incidents in India. It evolved an enveloping strategy to destabilise Pakistan domestically, through sponsorship of Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) terrorists and Baloch insurgents, and to isolate it internationally as a sponsor of terrorism.
Several developments may have shifted Indian calculations.
First, a significant convergence has emerged between Pakistan and major regional powers, Russia, China and Iran, on the need for a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan with the Afghan Taliban. India and the US were seen as spoilers.
Second, despite Donald Trump’s anti-Pakistan rhetoric and insults, a US confrontation with Pakistan and its designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, widely anticipated by India, have not happened and appear highly unlikely. On the contrary, the US continues to rely on Pakistan’s cooperation to sustain its presence in Afghanistan and promote a political settlement with the Afghan Taliban.
Third, after the Doklam stand-off last year, China offered India several olive branches — larger trade and investment, access to CPEC and, through it, to Central Asia and beyond, an intimate Xi-Modi summit. Afghan developments, American unpredictability and Chinese flexibility, appear to have inspired a policy recalibration in New Delhi to balance its vaunted strategic partnership with the US through more positive relations with China and Russia.
Fourth, India failed in its quest to destabilise or isolate Pakistan.
Pakistan’s several military operations in Fata and actions in Balochistan have succeeded in containing cross-border terrorism sponsored by India from Afghanistan. Cross-border attacks will be further restricted once Pakistan fully fences the Pak-Afghan border. Likewise, India has little hope now of isolating Pakistan given the central role it is expected to play in promoting a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan and the political convergence that has emerged among Pakistan, Russia, China and Iran on Afghanistan and terrorism.
Finally, India has been unable to suppress the ongoing popular revolt of the Kashmiri people for over two years. It may calculate that opening a dialogue with Pakistan could help to end the revolt.
For Pakistan, the most critical issue in any normalisation process will be (and has always been) Kashmir. No government or leader in Pakistan will be able to normalise relations with India while it continues a campaign of brutal suppression in Kashmir\.
If the past is any guide, India’s effort will be to focus any dialogue with Pakistan on terrorism and press for the elimination of pro-Kashmiri militant groups in Pakistan (Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Hizbul Mujahideen) and the incarceration of their leaders. Islamabad would find it difficult to act against these groups, especially the Hizb, which is not internationally outlawed, while Indian suppression continues in IHK. In the context of terrorism, Pakistan would obviously raise India’s sponsorship of the TTP and Baloch insurgents.
Contrary to simplistic analyses, India’s capacity to impose terrorist pressure on Pakistan is not unlimited. Pakistan can substantially neutralise India’s sponsorship of the TTP and the Balochistan Liberation Army through pressure on Kabul, negotiations with the US, fencing the border, political accommodation of Baloch grievances, Fata reforms and, if needed, direct action against terrorist bases. Pakistan does not need Indian concessions to eliminate cross-border terrorism from Afghanistan. Nor does it need to compromise its position on Kashmir to do so.
However, despite the false starts of the past, it is possible that in the midst of the current global strategic flux, India may have decided that its national interests would be better served by playing a positive role in the emerging Eurasian security and economic structures, epitomised by the SCO, rather than serving as America’s cat’s paw. If there is indeed such a shift in India’s strategic posture, it could open the door to addressing, if not fully resolving, the major issues between Pakistan and India.
Reciprocal assurances can be negotiated on terrorism, the non-use of force and the pacific settlement of disputes.
Some issues, such as Siachen and Sir Creek, can be quickly resolved. Existing confidence-building measures could be enlarged, eg by agreeing to limits on force and weapons deployments and elimination of the possibility of surprise attacks and preemptive strikes.
India’s participation in CPEC could be agreed without prejudice to Pakistan or India’s positions on the Jammu and Kashmir dispute. However, India would need to extend Pakistan reciprocal transit rights to Nepal and Bangladesh.
Expansion of bilateral trade could be mutually beneficial so long as Pakistan is provided assurances against deindustrialisation by subsidised Indian exports.
Water scarcity is a critical threat to both countries; they need to build on the Indus Waters Treaty to avert a water crisis that may become the spark of a future conflict.
It remains to be seen if the initial Pakistan-India overtures will lead to dialogue and whether this can be sustained.
The endeavour to normalise Pakistan-India relations is like a second marriage: a triumph of hope over experience.
But no one can be resigned to accept the alternative: continued turmoil in South Asia and the ever-present danger of a war between two nuclear weapons states.