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May 29, 2019

No meaningful progress


May 29, 2019

Narendra Modi’s emphatic election victory is not only a reaffirmation of his Hindu nationalist agenda but also an endorsement of his muscular foreign policy, particularly towards Pakistan. India’s relationship with Pakistan was one of the defining issues of Modi’s election campaign.

In February, following a suicide attack on Indian security forces in Kashmir’s Pulwama district, Modi ordered airstrikes on an alleged JeM camp in Pakistan’s Balakot district. The ensuing Pakistani retaliation culminated in a dog fight resulting in the downing of an Indian fighter jet and capture of the pilot who was released later as a conciliatory gesture by Pakistan. This turned out to be propitious in timing as the Indian media’s victory spin to these developments improved Modi’s declining public ratings.

Pakistani media and political parties have reacted with cautious optimism to Modi’s re-election. In a tweet, Prime Minister Imran Khan congratulated Modi and said: “Look forward to work with him for peace, progress and prosperity in South Asia.” Before his re-election, Khan considered Modi’s return to power as a good sign for India-Pakistan ties. Unlike previous Pakistani governments, Khan has cordial relations with all institutions of the state. So, his outreach to India can be seen in that light too.

The post-election developments have shown positive intent from both sides. On May 23, Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers Sushma Swaraj and Shah Mehmood Qureshi met informally on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) foreign ministers summit in Kyrgyzstan. Islamabad also relaxed airspace restrictions (which are ending on May 31) for Swaraj to travel to Kyrgyzstan to attend the SCO meeting.

Pakistan is appointing a national security adviser, a position which has been vacant since June last year, to restart the backchannel diplomacy with India. Similarly, in March this year, Islamabad has appointed Sohail Mehmood as its foreign secretary; Mehmood was Pakistan’s high commissioner to India.

Pakistan needs to normalise ties with India for strategic reasons. For one, it needs to ease mounting pressure from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a multilateral global watch-dog overlooking money laundering and counter-terrorist financing. The FATF has been giving Pakistan a very tough time over taking action against India-focused militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and JeM, particularly freezing their funds and other assets.

At present, the director general of the Indian Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) is the co-chair of the FATF’s Asia Pacific Joint Group, which is reviewing Pakistan’s compliance with FATF recommendations. In May, India scored a major diplomatic win when it convinced China to withdraw its technical hold on JeM chief Masood Azhar’s designation as a global terrorist by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).

Also, Pakistan’s slowing economic growth and mounting external debt situation too necessitate diplomatic engagement with India. Normalisation with India will ease extra defence expenditures from Pakistan’s exchequer. Since February, Pakistan has been maintaining a high-alert on the Indian border in Kashmir along with closing the airspace for India until May 31.

Notwithstanding Pakistan’s conciliatory gestures, Modi has come with a bigger mandate, so he will have strong domestic support to keep Pakistan on a tight leash. There is also no pressure on New Delhi from the US to normalise with Pakistan. In fact, during the Pulwama crisis, the US supported India and did not object to India’s violation of Pakistan’s airspace in the Balakot district.

India-Pakistan disagreements span beyond bilateral disputes to some regional issues as well. For instance, India is part of the Indo-Pacific alliance, which also includes the US, Japan and Australia, while Pakistan is a staunch ally of China in its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). India is apprehensive of the growing Chinese footprint in Pakistan, particularly in the disputed Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) area, which is closer to the Chinese border. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), BRI’s flagship project, originates from the Xinjian province, enters Pakistan through Gilgit-Baltistan and culminates at the Gwadar seaport in Balochistan. In May this year, Pakistani security agencies claimed to have dismantled an allegedly RAW-supported network, which they said aimed to destabilise Gilgit-Baltistan and CPEC projects.

India and Pakistan also do not see eye to eye on the ongoing Afghan peace process. Pakistan supports the Afghan Taliban’s unconditional incorporation in the Afghan power-structure through military and political concessions. On its part, India backs President Ashraf Ghani’s National Unity Government (NUG) and continuation of democracy in Afghanistan. India conditionally supports Taliban’s inclusion if the insurgent group accepts the current Afghan government and constitution, announces a ceasefire agreement and provides guarantees of not reversing the gains made in Afghanistan after 9/11 such as female education and their greater participation in the public sphere.

Likewise, Pakistan accuses Indian of fomenting trouble in Pakistan by supporting Baloch separatist groups from Afghanistan. India is apprehensive of Afghanistan’s return to the Taliban which then could be used by India-focused militant groups as a training and launching pad against India.

The contestation also exists over Kashmir where tensions have been rising with regard to Modi’s pre-election promises of doing away with Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian constitution. These articles accept Kashmir’s special status in the Indian federation. Pakistan opposes any amendments to these constitutional provisions. If India moves ahead with the proposed amendments, India-Pakistan tensions will increase further.

The recent conciliatory gestures between India and Pakistan will help bring down the current level of bilateral hostility, but any substantive improvement is unlikely. India will keep the pressure on Pakistan through bilateral and multilateral forums to extract more concessions. Additionally, India’s preoccupation with dismantling terrorist networks as a pre-condition for peace and Pakistan’s insistence on resolving the Kashmir dispute for long-lasting peace in South Asia will scuttle any meaningful progress beyond exploratory parleys.

Hence, the current status quo in India-Pakistan relations is likely to persist.

The writer is an associate research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.

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