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Pakistan@75: Navigating the way forward

C. Raja Mohan writes: Pakistan needs a fresh start. Ending the stalemate with India will expand the diplomatic, political and economic space for it to navigate its multiple current crises

Pakistan needs a fresh start, and ending the stalemate with India is a necessary part of it. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

As India and Pakistan celebrate the 75th anniversary of their Independence this month and reflect on the tragedies of Partition, it is an appropriate moment to take a fresh look at the unfortunate state of bilateral relations and consider new initiatives to break the stalemate.

While Delhi has a strong government in place and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has considerable freedom of political and diplomatic action, Islamabad is going through one of the more difficult moments in its history. It is not clear how long the current government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif will last; nor is it certain that fresh elections will produce greater internal coherence in Pakistan.

In an interview to an Indian TV channel in Tashkent last week on the margins of a regional summit, the young foreign minister of Pakistan, Bilawal Zardari Bhutto, was honest in summing up the problems with engaging India. Unlike his recent predecessor, the loquacious and quarrelsome Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Bhutto was not trying to posture against India. Nor did he take the reporter’s bait to attack Imran Khan’s policies. Bhutto’s dignity is refreshing but may not be enough to fix the problems with Pakistan’s diplomacy.

Bhutto was realistic in acknowledging that Pakistan has no choice but to find a way to live with India — “aaj nahi to kal” — if not today, then tomorrow. But he was frank enough to point to the difficulties. He reaffirmed Pakistan’s current position that India’s constitutional changes in Kashmir three years ago this month as one of the main obstacles.

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On the face of it, all major parties other than Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf are part of the current coalition government in Islamabad. It was apparently set up with the support of the Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa. Ousted as prime minister in April, Imran Khan has mounted a relentless campaign against the current government. He is winning popular support and has swept the bypolls to the Punjab assembly last month. He has got the judiciary to throw out the provincial government in Lahore led by Hamza Sharif.

It is one thing for Imran to go all out against his civilian rivals. But entirely another to confront the army chief and the so-called deep state. Imran has encouraged his supporters to attack Bajwa with little pushback so far from Rawalpindi. Speculation is rife that the army establishment is itself divided. Many retired senior officers have been openly backing Imran Khan and criticising his ouster. With Bajwa set to retire in November, there is natural jockeying for succession.

From a distance at least, Rawalpindi no longer seems to have that kind of absolute authority over Pakistan that it once did. This is not surprising. Decades of promoting undemocratic rule would not have mattered if the army could deliver competent governance and economic growth. It could not. Meanwhile, the army’s experiments with religious extremism at home and jihad abroad have seen Pakistan lose its once enviable diplomatic standing in the world.

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More than three decades of support for the Kashmir insurgency has certainly bled Kashmir, but has not shaken it loose from India. Pakistan, which could easily mobilise international support for its Kashmir cause against India in the 1990s, now can’t count on anyone other than China and Turkey to back it.

The US and the West which once viewed Pakistan as the main partner in Southern Asia now have an “India-first” policy in the region. The Gulf countries that Pakistan had cultivated in the name of religious solidarity now find Delhi a more valuable partner. Prolonged neglect of the economy and an obsession with geopolitics are costing Islamabad dearly today.

Pakistan’s economy is in a deep crisis and Islamabad is negotiating an IMF bailout for the 23rd time since its Independence. Long reared on the notion of strategic parity with India, Pakistan’s economy today is 10 times smaller. Worse still, Bangladesh’s economy is expected to be $100 billion larger than that of Pakistan at the end of 2022.

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Pakistan’s relative decline in the region is only part of the problem. The changing international environment marked by the deepening confrontation between the US on the one hand and China and Russia on the other has further complicated Pakistan’s diplomacy. Valued as a bridge between the US and China in the 1970s, Pakistan greatly benefited from partnerships with both in the last four decades. It is now struggling to navigate the Sino-US confrontation.

On his part, Bajwa noted the dangers of aligning too closely to China and has sought to rebuild ties with the US. But Imran Khan has chosen to cast himself as an anti-American patriot and thrown Pakistan’s lot with China. Imran Khan also ostentatiously presented himself at the Kremlin as Putin was ordering the invasion of Ukraine in February. The US interest in Pakistan has rapidly declined after the withdrawal from Afghanistan, and there is little enthusiasm in Washington for indulging Islamabad.

Bajwa saw the need for a comprehensive reset of Pakistan’s foreign policy. He was right in calling for a shift from geopolitics to geoeconomics. He made a bold bid in early 2021 to renew engagement with India. But that initiative sputtered, thanks to the opposition from the then PM Imran Khan. The leaders of the current coalition — Nawaz Sharif of the Muslim League and Asif Ali Zardari of the People’s Party – had both sought to improve relations with India in the past. But under pressure from Imran Khan, neither Bajwa nor the civilian leaders have much room to make a new beginning with India.

One does not have to be a genius to see that Pakistan needs a fresh start, and that ending the stalemate with India is a necessary part of it. Even small steps to improve relations with India will expand the diplomatic, political and economic space for Pakistan to navigate its multiple current crises. But that would demand an end to Pakistan’s preconditions on Kashmir to engage India.

Delhi, of course, should be the last one to tell Pakistan how to run its India policy. The source of change must necessarily come from within Pakistan. Given the massive emotional, ideological, political and strategic investments that Pakistan has made in the Kashmir insurgency, Rawalpindi and Islamabad will need much political courage to modify their current hard line and create the capacity to fend off the potential domestic backlash led by Imran Khan.

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But what Delhi can do is this – keep the lines of communication open with Islamabad and Rawalpindi. The reported back channel between national security adviser Ajit Doval and Bajwa did produce a ceasefire in February 2021 and is hopefully active today.

During the last eight years, Modi has demonstrated the toughness to change the terms of engagement with Pakistan on terror and Kashmir. But he also offered the hand of friendship by inviting Nawaz Sharif to his inauguration in 2014 and travelling to Lahore on short notice in December 2015.

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There is no better moment than the 75th anniversary of Independence and Partition for the Indian PM to articulate a new vision for South Asia’s future. The elites in Islamabad and Rawalpindi may not be ready to respond to Modi’s peace call from the ramparts of the Red Fort on August 15. But it is important that Modi’s message of goodwill is heard by the people of Pakistan and the Subcontinent.

The writer is senior fellow, Asia Society Policy Institute, Delhi and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express

First published on: 01-08-2022 at 04:47:16 pm
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