One of the most dangerous moments for a regime is when it wants to change course. When there is a significant alteration of internal or external circumstances, change becomes an urgent necessity. But in seeking major change, the sovereign takes considerable political risks. But not changing carries even bigger risks. That is the kind of moment that the Pakistani state finds itself in today.
The dominant sentiment in the Indian strategic community is that Pakistan can never change. But we do know that the only constant in the world is change. You could argue on when that change might occur, but not its eventuality. A small minority in India believes that Delhi must actively contribute to facilitating change in Pakistan by being generous on bilateral disputes. But sceptics would say India has no agency in shaping political outcomes across the western border and that the impetus for change must come from within Pakistan. Since India’s stakes in a stable Pakistan are higher than anyone else in the world, Delhi must pay close attention to the internal debates within Islamabad on the imperatives of major change in Pakistan’s national direction.
The national security policy statement issued last week by the government of Pakistan acknowledges the need for change. But as critics in Pakistan insist, it offers no clues on how to go about it. The classified version probably has a clear strategy on how to accelerate economic growth, build national cohesion, and revitalise its foreign and security policies. But it is not visible in the public version.
The crises that Pakistan confronts today are quite similar to those Delhi faced at the turn of the 1990s. India’s post-Independence old economic model went belly up; the era of massive domestic political mandates yielded place to weak coalition governments; the heartland was caught in deep social conflicts involving caste (mandal) and religion (kamandal); India’s periphery was on fire from Kashmir to Tamil Nadu and Punjab to the Northeast.
The Soviet Union, India’s best friend in the Cold War, fell off the map and the Russian successor was more interested in integrating with the West. India found that its political ties with all other major powers — the US, Europe, China and Japan — were underdeveloped at the end of the Cold War. On the development front, there were relentless external pressures for sweeping domestic changes.
As India struggled to cope with multiple threats to its territorial integrity, the world wanted to see greater accountability on human rights. Pakistan, meanwhile, was running proxy wars in India even as it mobilised international pressures against Delhi on Kashmir. All the major powers agreed on the dangers of nuclear proliferation and wanted India to roll back its nuclear weapons programme.
Within a decade, though, India was on a different trajectory. Its reformed economy was on a high growth path. India was hailed as an emerging power that would eventually become the third-largest economy in the world and a military power to reckon with. It wriggled free of the international itch for Kashmir mediation; it did not pacify all the insurgencies, but got a better handle on most of them. Delhi also cut a deal with Washington to become a part of the global nuclear order on reasonable terms.
This involved a series of structural economic reforms, the recasting of foreign policy, and developing a new culture of power-sharing within coalitions and between the Centre and the states. Above all, it involved shedding many of the ideological certitudes that seemed so essential for India’s existence.
India is not the only country in the Subcontinent that transformed itself. The economic transformation of Bangladesh has been equally impressive. At the dawn of the 1990s, Delhi put its head down to focus on economic transformation and manage multiple challenges confronting it. Bangladesh did much the same since Sheikh Hasina returned to power in 2009. It then focused on economic development, stopped support to terrorism, and improved ties with the larger of its two neighbours — India. But Pakistan chose a different path. It ended the Cold War on a high note. Having ousted the Soviet superpower from Afghanistan in the late 1980s, Pakistan was ready to apply the model of cross-border terrorism to shake Kashmir loose from India and turn Afghanistan into a protectorate. Supporting jihadi groups was seen as a low-cost strategy to achieve Pakistan’s long-standing strategic objectives in the neighbourhood.
These grand geopolitical obsessions left little bandwidth for the much-needed economic modernisation of Pakistan. As a result, its economy in 2021 (GDP at $280 billion) is well behind that of Bangladesh ($350 billion). Islamabad, which relentlessly pursued parity with Delhi, now finds that the Indian economy at $3.1 trillion is more than 10 times larger than that of Pakistan.
In the past, Pakistan had much success in pursuing a foreign policy that not only balanced India with the support of the West, but also carved out a large role for itself in the Middle East and more broadly the Muslim world. Today, Pakistan is upset that it does not get a call from US President Joe Biden since he has been elected in November 2020.
Barring the United Kingdom, Pakistan’s equities in the West have steadily diminished. Although its all-weather ties with China have gone from strength to strength, the unfolding conflict between Washington and Beijing has put Pakistan in an uncomfortable strategic situation. Meanwhile, it has squandered its traditionally strong ties in the Middle East with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Pakistan’s support for violent religious extremism has also begun to backfire. Militant groups once seen as valuable instruments for Pakistan have now turned against the state. A permissive environment for terrorism has now attracted severe financial penalties from the international system.
Pakistan had a chance to change course in 2001, when the US intervened in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. But it focused instead on protecting the Taliban and its anti-India assets. Pakistan’s triumph in bringing the Taliban back has had big costs in its relationship with the US. It is one thing to defeat the world’s sole superpower, but another to endure its wrath. Meanwhile, the Taliban is signalling it is not a passive proxy in Pakistan’s hands.
Continuous provocations of Pakistan’s terror have seen India change the terms of engagement with Islamabad in the last few years. Delhi, which was prepared to make concessions on Kashmir in the 1990s and 2000s, has taken Kashmir off the table and is ready to use military force in response to major terror attacks. Delhi’s attitude towards Islamabad now oscillates between insouciance and aggression. Unlike in the past, the West is no longer pressuring India to accommodate Pakistan on Kashmir. The US is eager for India’s support in balancing China in the Indo-Pacific.
All these shifts together have compelled Pakistan to rethink its policies. But any attempt at change will inevitably divide the establishment and produce new contradictions. It is by no means clear if the Pakistan army is capable of navigating them. As its crises acquire greater intensity, change is inevitable in Pakistan. There is no guarantee that the change will be definitive and for the good. But if it is, Delhi should be prepared to respond positively.
This column first appeared in the print edition on January 18, 2022 under the title ‘The choice before Pakistan’. The writer is Visiting Research Professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express.
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