Updated: December 29, 2021 9:53:14 pm
This year had begun with an unexpected positive turn in India’s relations with Pakistan — a ceasefire agreement in February. But it did not take long for those hopes to be dashed. Could 2022 be any different?
Optimists cheer the fact that the ceasefire has endured despite the absence of a formal dialogue and hope that the new year will turn out to be more propitious for dialogue than 2021. Pessimists insist Pakistan’s India policy is immune to any positive change. Idealists would want India and Pakistan to mark the 75th anniversary of Independence and Partition by making a fresh bid for durable peace in the subcontinent. Cynics will pour cold water on such visions by saying India and Pakistan are condemned to at least a “hundred-year war” in the subcontinent. Realists, however, say change is the eternal law of the world — for India, and Pakistan, too, the question is not “whether” they will change their approach towards each other, but “when”. Significant changes are occurring in both countries and in the larger regional and international environment. These are bound to have some impact on India-Pakistan relations that have been frozen stiff for long.
Six years ago this week, when Narendra Modi landed on short notice in Lahore, he visited Nawaz Sharif at his residence at Raiwind. It was Christmas Day and Nawaz Sharif was celebrating a family wedding as well as his birthday. The PM’s bold move raised expectations for a new chapter in India-Pakistan relations. It followed a meeting between the two leaders in Ufa, Russia, on the margins of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in July 2015. Modi and Sharif agreed on a few concrete steps to initiate a new dialogue.
Earlier, Sharif had come to Delhi to attend Modi’s swearing-in as India’s prime minister in May 2014. Sharif’s decision did not please Rawalpindi. Delhi saw the invitation as a political gesture of goodwill to its South Asian neighbour and a commitment to put the neighbourhood first in India’s foreign policy. But the military establishment saw it as Modi’s “imperial call” to the Delhi Durbar. Modi and Sharif, elected with strong popular mandates, seemed to get along well and appeared eager to advance the bilateral relationship. That Modi and Sharif might short-circuit the military establishment inevitably produced a backlash within the deep state.
Whether it was a reaction to Modi’s Lahore visit or not, a major terror attack took place against an Indian Air Force station in Pathankot on New Year’s day of 2016. In an unprecedented step, Modi invited the Pakistani intelligence agencies to join their Indian counterparts in investigating the incident and finding the source, but there was not much enthusiasm in pursuing the terrorists by Pakistan’s security establishment.
Within a few months, there was a second terror attack on the Indian Army brigade headquarters at Uri in September 2016. This time, Modi followed through with the Indian army’s surgical strike on terror camps in Pakistan. As a fresh chill enveloped relations with India, the deep state became even more hostile to Sharif, who called for a rethink of Pakistan’s support for terror groups and recasting relations with the neighbours. He was vilified as “Modi ka yaar” and the campaign against Sharif continued until he was ousted by mid-2017.
Imran Khan, who became the prime minister in 2018, presided over a rapid downturn in bilateral relations. Hugely popular across the subcontinent during his cricketing days, Imran boasted that he knew India better than anyone in Pakistan. He was confident about making a deal with Modi if the Indian PM was re-elected in 2019. But he seemed to have little understanding of either the Indian position or the negotiating history between the two nations.
A series of developments in early 2019 — the Pulwama terror attack, the Indian air force raid on Balakot in Pakistan and Delhi’s constitutional changes on Kashmir — produced a new dynamic for India-Pakistan relations. An outraged Pakistan went on an international campaign to compel India to reverse the changes in Kashmir, but got nowhere. Imran Khan himself went berserk with his personal vituperation against Modi.
But India and Pakistan surprised the world in February this year by announcing an agreement to renew the 2003 ceasefire that was observed more in breach in recent years. Although the agreement was formalised by the Directors General of Military Operations in the two army headquarters, it was negotiated in the backchannel between the Indian security establishment and the Pakistan army leadership. Besides the ceasefire, the two sides also agreed “to address each other’s core issues and concerns which have the propensity to disturb peace”.
India’s escalating military confrontation with China provided enough reason to try and stabilise the Pakistan frontier. But India’s engagement with Pakistan would, of course, be subject to Islamabad addressing Delhi’s core concerns on cross-border terrorism.
Islamabad’s own case for a reset was articulated by Pakistan’s Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa. He underlined the importance of Pakistan moving away from geopolitics to geoeconomics that will revitalise the nation’s economic development. He argued that it is time for India and Pakistan “to bury the past and move forward”. But he also insisted on the importance of India creating a “conducive environment” in Kashmir for the engagement to succeed.
While Kashmir remained at the top of Pakistan’s mind, it seemed open to reviving commercial ties. It announced an intent to import sugar and cotton from India, but the Commerce Ministry’s decision was ostentatiously reversed by Prime Minister Imran Khan by declaring that “Pakistan can’t trade with India when Kashmir was bleeding”.
Although the back-channel contacts continue, Islamabad is stuck with the formal preconditions — reversing India’s constitutional changes in Kashmir — it has set for a renewed dialogue with Delhi. It is by no means clear if Pakistan can develop a new internal consensus on the terms of engagement with Delhi.
The new year is likely to see greater political volatility in Pakistan. Gen. Bajwa’s second term as army chief ends in November amidst sharpening civil-military differences. Although Imran Khan’s political mandate runs until 2023, he might not survive 2022, thanks to multiple crises afflicting Pakistan and his government’s growing unpopularity. There is also speculation that Nawaz Sharif might return from exile early in the new year and step up the political confrontation with the Imran Khan government.
India’s political stability is not in question during the coming year, but there is intense hostility to any conversation with Pakistan among the government’s ideological base. Not talking to Pakistan has few domestic political costs to Delhi. In any case, it is Pakistan that will have to lift the preconditions for engagement with India; if it does, Delhi should be ready to pick up the threads from this year’s ceasefire agreement.
Looking beyond optimism, pessimism, idealism and cynicism, realists might bet that India and Pakistan will just muddle along in 2022. Meanwhile, structural changes are altering, slowly but certainly, the internal and external context of the bilateral relationship as well as the regional balance of power. That will make the traditional terms of the India-Pakistan debate less salient over time.
This column first appeared in the print edition on December 28, 2021 under the title ‘Old neigbours, new year’. The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and a contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express
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