Terms of engagement

The context of India-Pakistan relationship has changed significantly. Any framework for dialogue must reflect the new situation

“No man ever steps in the same river twice”, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus had said back in the 6th century BC. He explained by adding, “for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man”. The thought from Heraclitus might help explain why India is unwilling to get back to the kind of dialogue it pursued with Pakistan in the recent past.

Pakistan premier Imran Khan has written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, appealing for a resumption of the dialogue that has stalled for some years now. Khan’s foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi has urged the same in a separate letter to his Indian counterpart, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. The Indian response, if any, is not in the public domain. One thing, though, is quite certain. If and when India agrees to resume the dialogue with Pakistan, it is unlikely to be the one that Pakistan wants to resume.

For the context of the relationship between India and Pakistan has changed since the early 1990s, when the current series of talks began. Further, it is not the same India that Pakistan dealt with a quarter century ago. Even more important, PM Modi is very different from his recent predecessors — Manmohan Singh, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Inder Kumar Gujral and P V Narasimha Rao.

Returning to Heraclitus for a moment, the peace process between India and Pakistan is not the same river and the prime minister of India is not the same man. The old peace process was dead when PM Modi’s visit to Lahore on short notice on the Christmas day of 2015 was followed by an attack on Pathankot when the new year dawned a week later. What was this framework and why is it so difficult to redeem now?

The peace process had its origins in a time when the balance in the Subcontinent tilted in favour of Pakistan. By the turn of the 1990s, Pakistan was triumphalist and India was down in the dumps. Pakistan had acquired nuclear weapons by the late 1980s. That seemed to neutralise India’s conventional military superiority over Pakistan and established “nuclear parity” between the two subcontinental siblings. Beyond the nuclear, Pakistan was on high having just humbled a superpower — the Soviet Union. Moscow was compelled to withdraw from Afghanistan after a decade of occupation. Pakistan’s use of jihadi violence played no mean part in the strategic humiliation of Russia. To its west, Pakistan was eager to extend its sway into Afghanistan and beyond. In the east, it was time to take revenge for India’s vivisection of Pakistan in 1971.

If Pakistan was riding high, India seemed to be plumbing new depths. Its economy had collapsed and Delhi went into the IMF’s receivership. Political stability was dead with the demise of the so-called Congress system. The weak coalition governments in Delhi that followed had struggled to produce consensus on difficult policy choices. Meanwhile, the deepening faultlines of caste and religion seemed poised to tear Indian society apart. And its frontier regions — Punjab, Kashmir and the Northeast were all on the boil. Externally, India’s lone ally, the Soviet Union broke up into pieces and Delhi had to recalibrate its foreign relations.

Pakistan could easily be forgiven if it had thought India was now a pushover. It turned the Afghan jihadi experience to Kashmir where Delhi had made matters difficult for itself. The strategic impunity created by the nuclear weapons seemed to embolden the Pakistan army. Its immediate objective was to force a reluctant India to open up talks on the Kashmir question. It had two new instruments. One was the leverage over the militant groups in the Kashmir Valley and the creation of a sanctuary for anti-India terror groups. The other was the renewed international interest in resolving the Kashmir dispute. Washington convinced itself that Kashmir was the world’s most dangerous nuclear flashpoint. The pressure from Pakistan to reopen the Kashmir question was matched by that from the international community to start talking Kashmir.

India, willy nilly, agreed to put Kashmir back on the table by the end of the late 1990s. But it was only by 2004 — after a series of military crises rocked the bilateral relationship that there was an agreed methodology for a comprehensive negotiation with Pakistan. The three-fold framework involved a commitment from India to negotiate seriously on Kashmir, Pakistan’s promise to create a violence-free environment, and a joint pursuit of confidence building measures.

Outlined in January 2004 in Vajpayee’s talks with Pervez Mushrarraf, the process gained momentum in Manmohan Singh’s first term. The two sides expanded a range of CBMs, came close to solving some difficult issues like the dispute over Siachen glacier, and negotiated a broad understanding on Kashmir. But the process collapsed for a variety of reasons; there was plenty of blame to go around. From the Indian perspective, though, the main problem was the persistent cross-border terror backed by the Pakistan army.

After his initial outreach to Pakistan failed, Modi sought to break the frustrating talks-terror-talks cycle with Pakistan. The new approach had a number of elements. First, discard the pretence that the Hurriyat in Kashmir had a role in the talks with Pakistan; two, refuse to talk to Pakistan until it shows real progress on limiting cross-border terror; three, challenge Pakistan’s nuclear impunity through military escalation on the Line of Control, cross-border attacks and the use of air power after the Pulwama attack; and mobilise international pressure on Pakistan to stop supporting terrorism in Kashmir.

India has had a measure of success with this strategy, thanks to the evolution of the international context and the regional balance of power in India’s favour. From pressing India to talk Kashmir after every major military crisis, the major powers (with the exception of China) are now demanding that Pakistan put an end to terror first. Few in the world are today itching to resolve the Kashmir conflict. This change is rooted in turn in the dramatic reversal of the economic fortunes of Pakistan.

Until the early 1990s, Pakistan’s economy grew at a much faster pace than that of India. As economic reforms kicked in, India grew rapidly. A quarter century later, the Indian economy is nearly 10 times larger than Pakistan’s. Bangladesh, once the poor cousin, is now set to become a larger economy than Pakistan. As its army privileged jihadi violence, Pakistan has long ceased to be the attractive state that it once was — a dynamic economy, moderate political orientation and a natural leader of the Islamic world.

Is India taking full advantage of the shift in the regional balance of power? That is a far more interesting question than others at play today: Whether and when might Delhi talk to Islamabad? If India does resume talks, what weight might Delhi attach to the Kashmir question? If the old framework of dialogue with Pakistan was rooted in India’s weakness, Delhi now may see no reason to return to it. But “not talking to Pakistan” can’t be an end in itself. It should be about finding new terms of engagement with Pakistan.

(The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express)

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