Do we spy a softening in the freeze-dried India-Pakistan relationship? The strange announcement this week that India would invite Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) heads of government summit in India this year has set every believer’s heart racing in anticipation.
For one, the summit is in November. India-Pakistan relations could go to the precipice and back a couple of times by then. Second, if India is hosting the SCO summit, it would be churlish to leave Pakistan out, and make a mockery of India’s multilateral responsibilities. It would, as a senior official explained, imply a change in policy if India decided to not invite Pakistan.
Nevertheless, it might be a good time to evaluate the bilateral relationship after it went through the wringer last year, first with Pulwama-Balakot and then with India’s abrogation of Article 370 in J&K in August last year.
Balakot signalled India’s willingness to escalate a military response to a terror strike deep inside undisputed Pakistan. But the decision on Article 370 robbed Pakistan of its most potent raison d’être. Since then, Pakistan has embarked on a sustained diplomatic campaign against India.
China has been its most enthusiastic supporter, calling for a discussion on Kashmir three times in the UN Security Council (UNSC) in the past six months, unfazed by repeated pushback by India and other UNSC members. Islamabad leveraged its withdrawal from a new Islamic grouping with Turkey and Malaysia by getting Saudi Arabia to host an Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) foreign ministers’ meeting in April to discuss Kashmir. In the UN, a combative Munir Akram (Pakistan’s permanent representative to the UN) can be expected to give India a run for its money. Within the US, Pakistan’s security establishment and its lobby group have successfully sold the India-is-the-villain story, certainly on the grounds of Islamophobia and human rights violations to a vocal, if still small, constituency.
On the ground, however, LoC ceasefire violations and terrorist infiltration peaked before they actually fell and, at least for the past few weeks, have remained low. Pakistani commentators have rued their own government’s less than maximum commitment to “liberating” Kashmiris from the “genocidal” Indian state.
The reasons for this could be several— Pakistan could be trying to keep its nose clean until the February review by the intergovernmental Financial Action Task Force (FATF) on its terror financing systems. Pakistan could also be responding to some of the political and diplomatic pressure by its international partners, and there is enough evidence to show that both the US and Saudi Arabia have leaned on Pakistan to roll up its terror plans against India. The internal turmoil ensuing from the extension given to Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa could have played its part as well. A simpler and more plausible explanation is that they are waiting for the snow to melt and life in Kashmir to return to near normal, before starting a spring terror offensive.
General Bajwa is now comfortably back in the saddle after the Imran Khan government rushed through legislation that sanctified his extension. Since the main opposition parties meekly fell in line, there is little fear of any kind of opposition pushback. The fig leaf of civilian authority is no longer needed, as General Bajwa, according to Pakistani political analysts, gets the freedom to mould the Pakistani state in his image. For India, this would entail waiting to see how General Bajwa plays with his renewed authority.
Of course, he might need to worry about the several disaffected generals and corps commanders who will be compelled to retire under a glass ceiling, but the Pakistan Army is a professional and disciplined institution, so those worries are fairly distant at present.
Meanwhile, the Imran Khan government is busy racking up brownie points as it seeks to play mediator between Iran and the US, with Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi travelling to Washington to meet Secretary of State Michael Pompeo on Friday. Pakistan expects to play the same advertised role in Afghanistan this time around as the US and Taliban prepare for a deal that will allow Trump to bring soldiers home before the elections. Clearly, the expectation is that Islamabad can leverage these for US support on Kashmir.
For its part, India knows that Pakistan will not slip into the FATF blacklist but will stay on the grey list. Within J&K, the security structures are being deepened, while a political process is being started — how successful that is, remains to be seen.
India has meanwhile been hitting back at Pakistan for its treatment of its Hindu and Sikh minorities — partly to deflect criticism after the CAA-NRC protests across India became the first popular opposition to the Modi government’s politico-social agenda. It also served to highlight the Indian government’s justification for the CAA — just this week, India called in Pakistani diplomats to protest abductions and forced conversions of Hindu girls in Pakistan. In addition, the Nankana Sahib assault by Islamists has made it difficult to sustain the Kartarpur corridor — it will stay, but India will insist on much greater security.
All told, India doesn’t have a vastly different board on which to play, so the government will keep a tough security approach up front, even if it explores quiet ways to engage Islamabad. Pakistan has a habit of overreaching, so the delicate touch needed to put this bilateral relationship back on track may be missing, particularly if General Bajwa believes that terror is the answer, which will invite a menu of unwelcome responses from India.
India has taken an aggressive stand, including placing on the table the option to “take back” PoK. Given that the Modi government has ticked so many items off its agenda checklist, this should give everyone pause. That goes for both sides of the LoC. Imran Khan has a chance later this year to make a fresh move with India. That cannot entail walking the same old road.