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November 28, 2020

The eastern question - Part II

Opinion

November 28, 2020

Will peace with India ever be possible? Before the ascent of Narendra Modi, there were certainly a greater number of optimists in Pakistan who believed that not only was peace between the two countries possible, but that it was in Pakistan’s long-term interests to have better relations with its eastern neighbor.

Almost seven years on, the relationship between the two countries is perhaps the worst it has been at least descriptively speaking since the dark events of 1971. This is because even in moments of acute crisis since, there had always existed, normatively at least, an elite-understanding that total rupture was diplomatically and militarily cost-prohibitive. But notably, and for reasons and events undeniably linked to the BJP’s populist resurgence after the Manmohan Singh era, today both India and Pakistan find themselves at a point where that consensus no longer holds.

This raises a number of important legacy questions around the attempts made by Islamabad’s leaders this last decade in reaching out to New Delhi and trying to move the relationship forward. Were they wrong in trying to appease a regime whose considered opinion was to revise its territorial boundaries? Should Pakistan not have extended as many olive branches as they did, often at political cost to the figures extending them?

These are incredibly difficult questions to answer, in part because for one they presuppose the amount of agency Pakistan had in dealing with a post-26/11 India that was transforming in ways we perhaps didn’t fully understand. These questions also discount a chronology of events – such as the eruption of widespread anti-India sentiment in the Valley in 2016, and the arrest of Kulbhushan Jadhav that same year that came pass not due to Pakistan’s attempts to build equity with the BJP, but despite them. But setting these problems aside for a moment, it may be slightly unfair to suggest that even if our leaders could go back in time, they ought to have behaved differently.

For one, the sowing of the seeds of the BJP’s maximalist intentions South Asia predates the events of the past 20 years. Two, for a country that has cyclically experienced democracy and dictatorship, one thing that Pakistan has done rather well is maintain some semblance of mainstream political consensus on the overarching tone and tenor of our relationship with India. This is of course a byproduct of the fact that foreign policy with India has always been heavily securitized and that, barring the Musharraf dictatorship, policy formulation on India has necessitated buy-in from political stakeholders, both democratic and institutional, before being implemented.

The greatest domestic friction to occur over India since 2008 was arguably during PM Nawaz Sharif’s third premiership when, by initially retaining key security portfolios (foreign affairs and defence) the then-prime minister fueled a widely held belief that the Sharifs were placing a premium on individualizing and privatizing diplomacy with India, rather than resorting to an institutionalized search for pathways forward. The Sharif-Jindal episode that led to a ruckus in parliament added to an unfortunate impression that Nawaz Sharif was a lone ranger on a mission to improve relations with India.

The reason this was unfortunate was because it was simply not true. Until August 5, 2019, there was actually fairly little disagreement in any center in Pakistan on the importance of turning a page and starting afresh, should India reciprocate. And for all the apparent dysfunction in civil-military relations between 2013 and 2018, even the military it seemed was invested in a regional future embedded in trade, regional stability and dialogue. And so when disagreement did surface over Mian Sahib’s going out on a limb on India, the nature of the disagreement by and large tended to be procedural rather than substantive: detractors took issue with pace, timing and sequencing, as opposed to the logic of outreach itself. Let it be remembered that while the BJP’s sweeping victory in 2014 was symbolic, so was the unanimity of support in Islamabad for Sharif’s decision to attend his counterpart’s swearing-in.

That said, there is also an argument to be made that after 2014, as India steadily became more and more self-assured and imbibed in its regional demagoguery, Pakistan should have become less and less sanguine about the possibility of a viable peace between the two countries. When it came to power six years ago, the BJP had already signaled in its manifesto the intention to unilaterally revoke the special status of Jammu & Kashmir.

The party’s anti-Muslim bonafides were hardly new. Within months of its ascent, Modi and Doval began endorsing an incremental increase in the number of violations along both the Line of Control and Working Boundary resulting in the loss of civilian lives. By the time Pathankot and then Uri rolled around, followed by India’s systematic downgrading of relations and cancellation of talks, the absence of any institutional desire in New Delhi to improve ties had been made amply clear.

What then does this say about first PM Sharif, and later Prime Minister Imran Khan, who both risked strategic space for diminishing returns by reaching out to India? Here the answer is simple, and should go to both leaders’ credit as statesmen looking to build bridges. They overestimated India’s own rationality and the desire of India’s new ruling elite to work towards a better collective future for South Asia. And they underestimated the appetite India’s new rulers had for a relationship characterised by structural incompatibility.

These conclusions are important because there is a lot for Pakistan’s present leaders and political classes to learn, especially folks prone to reflexively politicising memory of the last decade of Indo-Pak relations, and associated outreach to India, for domestic gain. There are also lessons here on how Pakistan can and should talk about India on the international stage – that is, if India has reaffirmed its own strategic pre-eminence as Pakistan’s principal external threat, there should be no ambiguity in who bears responsibility for making that choice.

Concluded

The writer is a PhD candidate at Yale.

Twitter @fahdhumayun