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May 7, 2021

An offer and a reckoning

After the February 25 LOC ceasefire, agreed upon by Pakistani and Indian DGMOs, several exchanges followed between the two governments in the shape of letters and greetings etc, which left little doubt that background meetings between India and Pakistan officials were underway.

The Indian media briefed by its officials was first out with the story: that there had been exchanges between the security officials of the two countries, a timeline of actions was agreed upon, and the process of bilateral dialogue and the revival of Saarc including the arrival of Indian Prime Minister Modi in Pakistan for the Saarc summit before the year end was all but sorted out. This is what the Indian media had reported.

More recently, background briefings by Pakistani officials have confirmed that the Pakistan-India backchannel communication is ongoing – between top security officials. Officials confirm this channel was initiated in 2018 during PML-N PM Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s tenure and the PM supported the initiative.

Officials have confirmed that in December 2020 the Indian interlocutor had proposed that formal bilateral dialogue be initiated on all outstanding issues including Kashmir. It was in 1997 that Pakistan and India engaged in such a dialogue covering all issues. Whatever the label, during the last three decades this has generally been the pattern of Pakistan-India engagement. Quiet engagement has mostly followed wars, attacks and prolonged hiatus in Pakistan-India dialogue. Solutions meanwhile have remained elusive.

Often, quiet diplomacy has led to overt engagements like the Agra summit and former Indian PM Vajpayee’s January 2004 Islamabad visit. For now, however, the overt engagement has been restricted to the meetings of the DGMOs. Clearer conclusions between the interlocutors about a future road map are required before choreographed and coordinated overt moves take place.

With backchannel communication confirmed between Pakistan and India, the question for Pakistan is the importance and, more importantly, the advantage of such talks at this juncture. While examining the advantage of talks, first let us look at the context in which Pakistan and India find themselves. For now Pakistan's India policy is a ‘work-in-progress’ with no consensus yet among India’s policy-influencing centres including the foreign office, the NSA secretariat and the security institutions. Security institutions have a preference for early engagement with India. This was reflected in ECC’s March 31 decision to import cotton and sugar. On April 1, the Foreign Office’s opposition to such signalling held sway as the cabinet opposed Indian imports. This probably was unexpected even for some within Pakistan's policy influencing circles.

Questions regarding ‘where to next’ now abound. The Foreign Office with its historical memory remains sceptical about engaging with India, keeping in mind the August 4, 2019 course of dividing and annexing Occupied Kashmir, ending its special status and flooding Kashmir with non-Kashmiris. As various institutions within Pakistan assess the Indian talks offer and the value of dialogue remains irrefutable, it is important to factor the elements in the context that influences any Pakistan-India engagement. Four are important.

One, India has reached out to Islamabad only after its failed ‘isolate and box-in’ Pakistan’ policy. For example, after scuttling the 19th Saarc Summit scheduled for 2016 in Pakistan, Delhi has unfailingly scuttled all attempts by Pakistan to reconvene the summit. Meanwhile, it has continued to seek South Asian regional connectivity through non-Saarc groupings like the SAGQ (South Asia Growth Quadrangle), BIMSTEC, BBIN-MVA etc. India also continues to develop hybrid overland-maritime routes, for trade with Central, South West, South East Asia and Europe, through enhanced bilateral ties with Iran, through BIMSTEC or the North-South Transport Corridor (NSTC) platforms.

However, India’s attempts to develop these routes as alternatives to the ancient Silk Road routes do not offer an economically attractive alternative to the Grand Trunk Road route, which passes through Pakistan. Without overland access through Pakistan, ironically India does remain relatively ‘boxed-in’ to its west. Indian plans to be a centre of the world trade corridors could largely be grandstanding. According to widely quoted international publications in pre-Covid Modi’s India, the economic conditions have been a slow but downward trajectory. Pakistan's overland route indeed remains the lynchpin for the rise of India as an economic power – a fact that Pakistan seems almost bashful about.

Two, India meanwhile persists with its antagonism – creating a two-front security threat on Pakistan's eastern and western borders. Delhi pursued Pakistan's encirclement by expanding its sabotage and terrorism capacity to target Pakistan from the Afghan and Iran border zones. While in Afghanistan, India continues to ably exploit Pakistan's post-covert war legacy of fertile anti-Pakistan turf, India's intel footprint in Iran has weakened in recent months since Iran’s enhanced strategic engagement with Pakistan and China.

Nevertheless, India’s active antagonism towards Pakistan is intact. Its latest manifestation was the Indian-state supported EU disinformation lab targeting Pakistan on all media platforms. Earlier, in November 2020, Pakistan had detailed a documents-backed dossier of Indian state-sponsored terrorist operations in Pakistan. And before that the saga of Indian naval commander spy Kulbushan Jadhav’s terrorism and espionage in Pakistan

Three, India is in a difficult economic situation by all accounts documented internationally and regionally. Since 2016 Indian GDP, investment and industrial growth have been declining. Covid-19 has made it worse For India energy security remains a priority issue. Interestingly, although India publicly is out of the TAPI gas project, in fact it continues to attend TAPI meetings, and for energy security it's most crucial requirement remains getting energy supplies overland through Pakistan.

Four, India faces an unprecedented challenge from China. India’s military, maritime and trade networks remain in a challenged mode vis-a-vis China. Strategic thinkers within India have proposed that in a two-front situation for India the wise step is to ‘seek a durable and enduring peace with one of its adversaries'. India seems to have picked Pakistan. Deeper strategic ties with the US, its QUAD engagement and its US-supported possible security role in Afghanistan are all elements of India’s future security paradigm.

Against this backdrop, Pakistan's choice must be made in response to the following five questions: One, how will talks with India impact the Kashmiri resistance against Indian repression and state terrorism. Any agreement to engage in talks while India makes no demonstrable moves to redraw some of its August 2019 steps will mean that Pakistan has dropped all the conditions it announced on August 5, 2019 to engage with India. This would be a flawed strategy, with Pakistan unwittingly enabling India to further crush the Kashmiris.

Two, what assurances is India giving Pakistan about resolving many outstanding issues including the water problem. Three, will it enhance Pakistan's bargaining power in negotiating in security and economic interests with external players, especially in its neighbourhood? Four, how will it impact Pakistan's relations with its key strategic ally, China? Five, will it impact Pakistan's multiple internal problems?

How Pakistan responds to this Indian offer, provided the offer is sustained beyond the latest Indian ceasefire violations, will reflect how Pakistan's governments and managers plan to pilot Pakistan. Does Pakistan see itself as a genuine inheritor of the ancient Silk Route and position itself truly at the heart of global trade and commerce, leading the multiple initiatives that come with the restoration of the ancient wisdom, abiding trading patterns with new visions and new technology? It's as simple as that. Will Pakistan be ready to work hard, cooperatively within and without, to actually realise it's true economic, diplomatic and strategic potential or is it okay playing second-fiddle in another’s tune? It is these kinds of choices that separate the competent and the wise from the blundering.

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @nasimzehra