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June 10, 2020

A missed opportunity


June 10, 2020

Despite the Covid-19 pandemic hogging headlines the world over, thanks to the massive havoc it is wreaking in terms of human and economic losses, the perennial India-Pakistan dispute continues to remain alive and kicking.

The epoch-making step taken by the Modi’s nationalistic and Hindutva inspired government on August 5 last year upset the status quo in a spectacular way and unleashed dynamics whose consequences have not only reshaped the nature of bilateral relations between the archrivals but also upped the ante for peace and stability in the Greater South Asia region.

Indian PM Modi’s one odd tweet expressing sympathies for the bereaved families on the loss of human lives in a plane crash in Karachi represented a minor departure from a pattern marked by belligerence and brinkmanship employed by New Delhi in its post-August interaction with Islamabad.

The fact that peace in South Asia hangs by a thread is endorsed by the recurrent clashes along the LoC as well as the possibility of a terrorist incident a la Pulwama, bringing both the countries in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation. Prime Minister Imran Khan has been consistently empathic in articulating an apprehension of India launching a false flag operation to take the global spotlight away from its action in Held Kashmir.

The annexation of Jammu & Kashmir to the Indian Union, courtesy the scrapping of Article 370 and Article 35-A, has shut the doors of dialogue on Islamabad and New Delhi for a foreseeable future, adding to uncertainty and confusion in their conflict-ridden relations. A ‘no-dialogue’ state also characterized by downgrading of diplomatic relations means that both the governments do not have even normal means of communication to manage an unexpected crisis.

This massive rupture in the bilateral relations did not come off all of a sudden. There has been a gradual buildup with events happening periodically over the years, and the lack of sufficient response increasing the costs for peace-building and normalcy in the bilateral relations.

The story of India-Pakistan relations is a story of missed opportunities. The following is instructive in this regard:

A review of election campaigns run by various political parties in India and Pakistan makes for an interesting reading. For Indian political parties, the BJP in particular, elections in India are pivoted around Pakistan. A familiar pattern has emerged in the run-up to an election. A real or an alleged incident of terror or skirmishes along the LoC hands over a justification to Indian political parties to launch a full-throttle verbal attack on Islamabad in an effort to outcompete each other in Pakistan-bashing.

In such an environment, the talk of the performance of the sitting government is hushed up and critique of the manifestos of the contesting political parties is put on the backburner. In the end, it all boils down to Pakistan and the mantra of cross-border terrorism.

Contrarily, as suggested by an appraisal of the issues dominating the pre-election political conversation in Pakistan, India does not figure as one of the main talking points of mainstream political leaders. If anything, manifestos of the political parties, be it PTI, PML-N or PPP, demonstrate a unanimity on the need for improving relations with the eastern neighbour. Even Jamat-i-Islami and other right wing parties that made quite a fuss about the signing of Lahore Declaration in 1999 are unable to bring India into the national conversation.

The obdurate Modi government missed another important development in Pakistan, which, if leveraged, could have opened up vistas of opportunity for resolution of the outstanding issues bedeviling the bilateral relations. As Pakistan took on a plethora of terrorist and militant organizations in a fight for its survival spanning over a decade, a gradual realisation developed within the civilian and military leadership that the country’s security challenges stemming from the non-state actors were graver and more urgent than those posed by neighbours.

This development marked a strategic shift in Pakistan’s India policy with all elements of national power convinced of the need for engagement and resolution of all outstanding issues through negotiation. Former PM Nawaz Sharif’s attendance of Modi’s oath-taking ceremony in 2014 and Prime Minister Imran Khan’s desire of working with Modi can be seen in this context.

In his victory speech, PM Imran Khan listed improvement of relations with India as one of the key agenda points of his administration, thus indicating a fresh emphasis on how vital rapprochement with New Delhi was. He followed it up with a couple of goodwill letters to PM Modi in which he underlined the need of sustainable peace to rid people of two countries of the shared challenges of economic backwardness and poverty.

Likewise, the robust and active Pakistani media and civil society organizations added their powerful voice to the peace efforts, reflecting a change in mood and thinking in Islamabad. This runs contrary to the hawkish tone of the Indian media vis-à-vis Pakistan which, with a few exceptions, emerged as a mouthpiece of the right-wing Hindutva-peddling BJP government.

The Indian leadership demonstrated a myopic approach in failing to read the significant transformation in the worldview of Pakistan’s political and strategic community. The Modi government’s insistence on painting Pakistan in a bad light as a promoter of terrorism flew in the face of the changed reality of a country that has won global applause by winning the war on terrorism spanning over almost two decades. India’s Pakistan policy seems stuck in a time warp, lacking the capacity to adjust to new realities.

Modi’s revocation of the special status afforded to IOK and subsequent actions to remake India in the image of the Hindutva ideology that feeds on exclusivity and Xenophobia has pushed it into a blind alley. The Hinduisation of the country presents manifest dangers to its multi-ethnic and multi-religious character, capable of plunging it into a deep pit of self-destruction. Post-August India has been engulfed in raging fires that have weakened its Gandhian foundation.

The situation in IOK remains so volatile and dicey that the Modi government has been unable to lift the lockdown out of the fear of the unknown despite the passage of ten months. What transpires in Kashmir over the next few years will reshape not only India but also the future of its relations with Pakistan. The prospect of an estranged and hostile neighbourhood is a likely outcome of Modi's hawkish policies. History tells us that there is no coming back from the path India has chosen.

The writer, a Chevening scholar, studied International Journalism at the University of Sussex.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @Amanat222