What stands out from the surprising joint announcement of a ceasefire by the DGMOs of India and Pakistan last week is the clear message that General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Pakistan’s Army Chief, has taken charge of the peace initiative with India. Much like General Pervez Musharraf two decades ago, it is Bajwa who will be India’s main interlocutor in the unfolding peace process.
Unlike the Congress-led UPA government that failed to grasp the opportunities presented by Musharraf, Prime Minister Narendra Modi brings a touch of boldness to India’s engagement with Pakistan. If the UPA government was utterly timid when it came to Pakistan, Modi has demonstrated over the last few years that he can think out of the box and act decisively.
That was exactly the bet Imran Khan was making in April 2019 — after Pulwama and Balakot — in the middle of the Indian general elections. Reuters reported Khan’s comments that the Congress was too scared to cut a deal on Kashmir, but Modi’s BJP could produce a breakthrough. Pakistan, however, was shocked by the controversial changes in Kashmir initiated by Modi after the election.
Does Bajwa’s call for a “dignified and peaceful settlement” reflect a new desire in Pakistan to come to terms with new facts on the ground in Kashmir? Even if Bajwa is serious, the contradictions of the peace process will show up rather quickly.
Problems will arise as soon as the two sides seek to implement the main element of the joint statement by the two DGMOs — “address each other’s core issues”. The reference to core issues is code for India’s concerns on cross-border terrorism and Pakistan’s on Kashmir. The inability to address these issues to mutual satisfaction has led to the collapse of previous peace initiatives.
But a framework does exist. In January 2004, soon after the ceasefire, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Musharraf agreed on a tripod to support the peace process. Under this framework, Pakistan was to help reduce cross-border violence, India would negotiate on Kashmir, and a range of confidence-building measures could be developed by the two sides to generate a conducive environment. An impatient Musharraf and an indecisive Manmohan Singh could not, however, sustain it beyond a few productive years.
Can the two sides work the tripod a little better this time?
It might take just one major terror attack to undo the peace process. It would also mount massive pressure on Modi to respond with great force. It is easy to slide down in the India-Pak board game of snakes and ladders.
What about a Kashmir settlement? The back channel between Musharraf and Manmohan Singh did produce the framework for an agreement, but Musharraf’s successor, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani quickly disowned it. It is by no means clear if the Modi government will agree to revive a framework rooted in the principle of “shared sovereignty” in Kashmir.
The immediate problem for Bajwa, though, is the unrealistic expectations created in Pakistan from Imran Khan’s high-decibel campaign against India’s decision to abrogate Article 370 and the division of the J&K state into two separate union territories. The popular narrative in Pakistan believes that Modi has no choice but to restore Article 370 either under American pressure or due to the Indian Supreme Court’s intervention.
The Pakistan Army presumably knows better than betting on such facile assumptions. Bajwa’s real problem is that Modi’s India has vigorously tested many traditional elements of Pakistan’s Kashmir strategy. Let’s begin with the “internationalisation” of the Kashmir question. Bajwa’s hopes that China can get the UNSC to compel a reversal of the Kashmir constitutional change have been dashed, thanks to Western and Russian support for India.
It is India that has been better at mobilising international support against Pakistan. Delhi has successfully worked with an international organisation, the Financial Action Task Force, to turn the economic screws on Pakistan’s support for terrorism. Unlike the UN and the OIC that Pakistan’s diplomacy has focused on, the FATF has teeth. Pakistan’s economy has been feeling the pain of the prolonged FATF bite.
Second, Pakistan’s use of jihadi groups to destabilise Kashmir seemed effective in inflicting pain on India in the past. But international tolerance for such a strategy by Pakistan has declined. And Delhi is no longer flailing helplessly in the face of terror attacks. If Manmohan Singh was reluctant to hit back, Modi has taken the battle into Pakistan.
That brings us to the third element of Pakistan’s strategy — the threat of nuclear escalation that would draw US intervention. The US continues to respond to India-Pak military crises, but its interventions have increasingly favoured India. In demonstrating the will to escalate and call Pakistan’s nuclear bluff, Delhi has figured that international fears of escalation could be turned against Rawalpindi.
Fourth, Modi has shredded the traditional India-Pak template on Kashmir. For nearly seven decades, India pretended that Kashmir is an inalienable part of India, but left its territorial status in the Indian Union ambivalent. Pakistan, on the other hand, pretended that Kashmir is “Azad” or independent, but ran the POK on a tight leash from Islamabad.
With Modi rewriting India’s Kashmir framework in August 2019, Pakistan may be ready to do the same. Islamabad is now considering a change in the until now ill-defined status of Gilgit-Baltistan — a part of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir in 1947. It wants to make the region the fifth province of Pakistan. Many in Pakistan, including the former high commissioner to India Abdul Basit, have expressed deep concern that the change would profoundly undermine Islamabad’s long-standing political case on Kashmir.
Is Bajwa willing and capable of implementing a new policy on Kashmir and India? Can he survive the potential backlash in Pakistan? Pessimists in Delhi are convinced Rawalpindi will never be able to change course. Optimists say change is inevitable. Realists acknowledge the power of inertia, but insist it is about when change could occur, not whether.
Pragmatists, who believe action is better than inaction, would add that Delhi has nothing to lose by exploring the seriousness of Bajwa, who for three years has repeatedly called for peace on Pakistan’s frontiers and a revitalisation of its economy. For now, Delhi should give some credit to Bajwa for opening the door.
We certainly don’t know if the General is being tactical or strategic. Delhi will find that out only by negotiating seriously with the Pakistan army. Yet another failure with Rawalpindi will not surprise Delhi. Even a short pause in the conflict could be put to good use — by both. A confident Delhi, with its eyes wide open, should travel hopefully with Bajwa. Delhi should be prepared for a rather short ride, but be open to a longer journey.
This article first appeared in the print edition on March 2, 2021 under the title ‘Reading General Bajwa’. The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express