The outgoing Pakistan high commissioner, Sohail Mahmood, who is returning to Islamabad to take charge as foreign secretary, has iterated Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s call for the resumption of dialogue, after the elections. The need for India and Pakistan to resolve their differences by peaceful methods is a no-brainer. Finding a modus vivendi as cordial neighbours, if not as the best of the friends is an imperative, because the alternatives are too dire to contemplate. Implicit in Mahmood’s call is the expectation that what happens at the election stays in the election, and that all the grandstanding settles down once victory and defeat have been decided. It usually does. There is much talk of Pakistan and war this election season in India, but the political leadership of this country knows that actual war is a messy business. This is why there is recognition that the two countries must normalise relations. This is why even while the leading lights of the BJP were demanding in Parliament a “befitting” reply for a particularly bad round of ceasefire violations in 2017, the national security advisors of both countries were in secret talks.
So if Pakistan wants peace today, it should not be interpreted by India as a sign of weakness, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in Kathua, nor should India be considered weak for talking to Pakistan rather than sending the Indian Air Force to bomb terrorist targets. But the new “objective narrative” between the two countries that Mahmood talks about cannot be a one-side acquiescence of Khan’s version of what Pakistan or the Pakistani state is today. After all, there would have been no Pulwama had Pakistan acted against Masood Azhar after Pathankot, and perhaps no Pathankot had the perpetrators of Mumbai 26/11 been punished. And there would never have been a Balakot had Jaish-e-Mohammed not been headquartered in Pakistan. And there would be no Jaish had it not been nurtured by the Pakistani security establishment. Whatever Khan says, there is no sign that this establishment has changed its colours.
The best phase in India-Pakistan relations lasted the two years from the time the military ruler Pervez Musharraf pledged not to allow Pakistani territory or PoK to be used by terrorists for attacks on India in January 2004. It lasted until the 2006 Mumbai bomb attacks, and officially died in 2008. In this short period, the two countries caught a glimpse of what normal might mean in their relations — two bus services to connect divided J&K, cross LoC trade, both signs of what a Kashmir resolution could look like, relative peace in the Valley, sporting and cultural ties between South Asia’s big rivals. That was an attempt at crafting an “objective narrative”. A new narrative will certainly require an acknowledgement of what went wrong the last time, if nothing else.