India is being ruled by a strongman and his rule has worked for it as shown by its high growth rate. Its neighbour Pakistan is trapped in a low-growth cycle and its political dysfunction is at its pinnacle. The two don’t enjoy good relations but certainly India has the upper hand by virtue of its economic strength. India can keep on the pressure with its regional and global strategies till it finds that it can start talking to Pakistan for a “normalisation” of relations.
The BJP government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi enjoys popular support. Judging from social media, most Indians stand behind the Modi government’s “cease terrorism first” approach to Pakistan that postpones normalisation. The mood in India is punitive. In contrast, the mood in Pakistan is cautiously submissive. At this moment of hawkishness in India, Pakistan wants “talks” and “trade”. It has to say “talks” before it says “trade” because it can’t completely break out of its decades-old posture of “not giving up on Kashmir”. “Talks” break down and deadlocks present déjà vus it is not expected to desire.
The policy shift in Pakistan has been initiated by the Pakistan army which runs all policy, especially foreign and India policy, and they will get rid of the elected government if it gets out of line in relation to India. For the Pakistan army, some options are closing, especially one of “championing the Kashmir cause”, but it doesn’t know how to roll back the old agitprop. It is facing a new situation in next-door Afghanistan where India is now firmly entrenched. The Taliban is no longer willing to play ball, and is more inclined, instead, to listen to India and its patrons in the Gulf. A return to the Taliban rule in Kabul will be dangerous for Pakistan because of its jihadi underground.
A high-growth strongman, Narendra Modi has been offered a “talks-and-trade” olive branch by a low-growth strongman, Imran Khan, and, the more operative subliminal part in his overture is “trade”. What we have on offer here is “normalisation” of relations, earlier attempted by the great statesman-predecessor of Modi, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The world knows that Vajpayee was betrayed when the Pakistan army mounted its foredoomed Kargil Operations, bringing the prestige of the Pakistan army to its lowest ebb.
That Pakistan army has finally digested the Kargil defeat has been substantiated by Nasim Zehra’s extraordinary tell-all book, From Kargil to the Coup: Events that Shook Pakistan (2018). There is hardly any doubt that the army has decided to tolerate the humiliating expose of how the generals concocted “victory” out of a situation that not even a halfwit could have seen as Pakistan’s finest hour. As Kargil unfolded, what was happening on the ground was an Indo-Pak normalisation between two prime ministers, on the basis of the “connectivities” thrashed out at the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). The “trade” part of that regional vision was subverted by Islamabad when it denied the most-favoured-nation facility to India on a reciprocal basis. Now Islamabad is talking trade and is hardly in a position to frontload Kashmir in any bilateral dialogue.
Perhaps this is the right moment for India to accept the Pakistani overture. The punitive phase — underlined by cross-LoC mortar fire by India on an almost daily basis to “soften” Pakistan — must come to a close. And the moment is now, as Christophe Jaffrelot wrote: “The 2017 Pew report revealed that in India 55 percent of the respondents backed ‘a governing system in which a strong leader can make decisions without interference from parliament or the courts’, while 53 per cent supported military rule.” (IE, December 25) The Indian strongman is in place, and Pakistan is realistically willing to walk back from its “hybrid” war which it says has been succeeded by a “fifth generation” war that subverts the Pakistani mind in favour of the enemy.
Nothing persuades the decision-makers in Pakistan more than China whose infrastructural projects in Pakistan will succeed only if Pakistan and India are not bleeding each other out. As India and China discuss peace in Afghanistan, they know they are both important players in the region — India with its Chabahar route to China’s Belt and Road project. Pakistan stands between Afghanistan and India, as Afghanistan asks for a through trade route to India — which more and more foreign policy experts in Pakistan are in favour of granting. As the United States withdraws from Afghanistan, India will have to use its considerable leverage in the region on its own. Normalisation of relations with Pakistan will only consolidate its growing influence in South Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East.
Both Modi and Khan are “transformational” leaders whether the “liberals” in both countries like it or not. They can change the way the two countries have been relating to each other. Indo-Pak normalisation will lead to an “internal” normalisation on both sides: Extremism that propels street power into violence against Muslims and Dalits will subside in India even as the state stops kidnapping “critical” intellectuals in Pakistan in the name of “fifth-generation warfare”.