What are the prospects for the resumption of India-Pakistan dialogue now that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been reelected? Briefly, dialogue will most likely resume, but whether it will achieve anything significant is doubtful.
The history of India-Pakistan relations leads us to be skeptical of any breakthroughs in such talks. And as we have seen in the past, each time the talks resume, they grind to a stumbling halt in no time, and sometimes they end even before they begin. Given all this, resumed talks may lead to an agreement to ease people to people contacts, improve atmospherics, and advance the Kartarpur initiative. But immediate revival of an institutionalized dialogue like the Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue established in 2015 is unlikely, and for several reasons.
Remembering Baselines and Fundamentals
It is important to note at the outset that reality is, whether India and Pakistan are talking or not, their relationship remains the same. And that includes any form of dialogue. India-Pakistan national priorities are divergent, their foreign policies have evolved in a competitive regional and geopolitical environment, and their domestic politics feed on mutual opposition. Their economies are parallel not complementary. And they have to contend with a negative historical baggage. No wonder their moments of friendship have been fleeting, and periods of estrangement enduring.
Clearly, lengthy strained relations we have seen do have some benefits for some actors on both sides. With vested interests in such a relationship, hardliners had provided each other a rationale for continued strain. In this sense, they have thus been both friends as well as enemies.
Additionally, whenever either India or Pakistan sought better ties, the other was not ready. And on rare occasions when politics and policy were aligned on both sides and they seemed inclined to turn a page, like during the time of Modi and Nawaz Sharif, non-state actors struck. Earlier, the 2008 Mumbai attack had happened in the wake of the back-channel diplomacy between Indian then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his counterpart Pervez Musharraf.
Modi has taken a hard line on Pakistan. But most Indian leaders have been hawkish on Pakistan. The difference is Modi’s hard line fits perfectly with his domestic and foreign policies serving India’s economic rise and global ambitions, and it has found common purpose in U.S. strategic objectives in the region.
India’s hard line against Pakistan used to be restricted by US-Pakistan relations. Now, the two run parallel as American and Indian interests have both come to focus negatively on Pakistan. The U.S. policies in South Asia that once hampered India’s regional goals are now advancing them.
India feels it has been given free rein to use its dominant status in the region to establish hegemony over Pakistan, in addition to also pursuing its Kashmir policy without external constraints. Pakistan desires normalization but as an equal, and also wants the resolution of the Kashmir dispute. Both countries’ objectives and policies thus collide. Obviously, the relationship cannot be normalized due to the lack of consensus on the terms of engagement.
The Routinization of Brinkmanship
After his peace gestures to Sharif had been sabotaged by terrorist incidents of 2015 and 2016, Modi decided on a policy of isolating Pakistan. But the strategy has run its course. Now, in case of any perceived provocation from non-state actors from across the border, India is ever more tempted to use military action. And Pakistan, anxious to avoid a wider conflict given the conventional balance in New Delhi’s favor, finds comfort in signaling a nuclear option.
This is what happened when the Indian Air Force attacked the Pakistani city of Balakot on February 26 in retaliation for the Pulwama incident. On February 27, Pakistan convened a session of National Command Authority that deals with nuclear defense, and carried out its own retaliatory strike against India later that day, downing an Indian plane.
Pakistan now claims that after its military action, Delhi had intended to launch missile attacks against six Pakistani targets, but Islamabad’s threat that its response would be three times larger forestalled the Indian action. Whether the claim is true or not, we do know that since Pulwama, Modi has been openly holding out a nuclear threat. He recently said “the nuclear button was not reserved for use on Diwali”.
This brinkmanship is risky, as it lowers the nuclear threshold. But the two countries still engage in it. They entertain an exaggerated notion that having lived in perpetual tension and gone through many crises, they know each other’s politics, institutions, and patterns of behavior well. And sharing language, culture, habits of mind, and a belief in destiny, they might feel they know each other’s body language.
With these structural barriers, imagined and real, both countries take risks with brinkmanship, hoping it would stop short of a catastrophic war. If all else fails, there is confidence that foreign powers would get involved like in the Pulwama incident early this year, in Kargil in 1999, and over the Twin Peak crisis in 2001-2002. In the end both claim victory, with Pakistan asserting that its nuclear deterrence has worked, and India affirming that it has called Pakistan’s nuclear bluff.
The Low Bar for Dialogue
Clearly India and Pakistan have magnified each other as a threat, and exaggerated their own capability to deal with it. They need to rethink the danger of this kind of thinking and rediscover the art of communicating. There is no option but to return to dialogue.
But the problem is their notion of dialogue, at least as it stands at this point, falls short of what would be required. What is needed is not just dialogue, but a dialogue process that endures. This structured dialogue would need a certain consensus or understanding on fundamental issues, but that unfortunately is missing. That is why the Composite Dialogue set up in 1997 had a checkered record. It was replaced in 2015 by Modi and Sharif with a Comprehensive Bilateral dialogue, and that did not even get off the ground.
Modi and the military have made security a central issue in India’s national priorities and terrorism as the core issue for a formal dialogue with Pakistan. They feel India cannot live under the fear of destabilization by non-state actors from across the border.
The strategic community in India generally supports the government’s policy on Pakistan. Overall, there is a consensus that unless Pakistan demonstrates its resolve to take on militant organizations, at least by committing itself to the implementation of the 2004 understanding on cooperation against terrorism, the dialogue will remain limited or stuck. In a media interview on her recent visit to Pakistan, Alice Wells, the principal assistant secretary of state, seemed to agree that India-Pakistan dialogue will not move forward without some resolution of the terrorism issue.
Apart from the terrorism issue, there is another hurdle. The dialogue process has to include Kashmir on Pakistan’s urging, which India does not want. Through his harsh policies in Kashmir, Modi is seeking what he may consider as an internal solution to the dispute which virtually removes it from the diplomatic agenda with Pakistan. That makes the resumption of an institutionalized dialogue all the more uncertain.
Complex External Variables
Another reason for uncertainty with respect to dialogue is the reality that India Pakistan relationship is no longer just about them. India’s Pakistan policy is an adjunct to its China policy and its relationship with Washington. And for Washington, the relations with India are an extension of its China policy and a pressure point against Pakistan to advance U.S. interests in Afghanistan and to seek dismantling of the militant organizations.
No meaningful change is expected in India’s position unless some or all of the following happen: Afghanistan stabilizes; there is visible improvement in Pakistan’s economy and it compels attention as an economic partner including as a gateway to Central Asia: Islamabad makes progress in its fight against militant organizations; and China-India relations improve.
India desires economic relations with China, but CPEC is one of the obstacles. China needs to reassure New Delhi that it does not plan to use the project to isolate India. And India needs to assure China that it does not plan to weaken CPEC with its opposition to Pakistan. With India’s acceptance of CPEC and its possible inclusion at some stage, and Pakistan’s willingness to give India the transit trade rights, South Asia can become an integrated market linked with Central Asia, with a great economic future for the two regions.
The Need for Synchronized Progress
In sum, for peace and prosperity to come to South Asia, geopolitical, regional, and bilateral relations will have to be in sync. This requires effort not just on the part of India and Pakistan, but also outside actors such as China and the United States that have their own interests in specific outcomes.
To be sure, this is far from easy. But it may be the only way to lighten the baggage of history and to push back the long-entrenched politics of the India Pakistan relationship. This might happen one day, but, for now, it does not look like it will occur anytime soon.
Touqir Hussain, a former Ambassador of Pakistan and Diplomatic Advisor to the Prime Minister, is adjunct faculty at Georgetown University and Syracuse University.
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