The small ray of hope that kindled regarding improvement in Pakistan-India relations after the congratulatory message of PM Narendra Modi to Imran Khan soon turned into an ugly exchange of mutual recriminations. It is a reflection and continuation of the deep feelings of insecurity that the two countries have betrayed against each other since their independence seven decades ago.
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India’s pretext to cancel the meeting of foreign ministers on the sidelines of the UNGA was based on flimsy grounds. According to the Indian version, Pakistan was involved in a recent terrorist attack in which the body of an Indian soldier was decapitated. It was apparent India was making baseless allegation to wriggle out of its commitments. As has been rightly stated by the DG ISPR that a professional army like ours would never commit such a heinous crime and offered for a joint inquiry. The statements of prime ministers that followed after the incident only added acrimony to a wounded relationship. Much worse were the unwarranted comments by Indian Army Chief Gen Bipin Rawat. He seems to have made it into a habit to threaten Pakistan frequently and his claims of “surgical strikes” at the Line of Control, although imaginary, reflect how belligerent and political the Indian military leadership has become.
What exactly was the motive behind India’s reversal when the incident of the soldier’s decapitation had taken place before the two governments decided that their FMs would meet? Was it an afterthought by the Modi government that it will have adverse fallout on the Indian national elections in 2019? Or the logic was why let up the pressure, as gains for India are more than losses at least in the near term. The other fact is that it becomes difficult for the Indian military to sustain the state violence in Kashmir at such a high pitch if any form of political interaction between the two states is taking place? Moreover, the Indian establishment must have realised that any peace gesture can be equated to condoning Pakistan’s so-called support to Lashkar-e-Taiba and other India-and Afghanistan-specific groups. More significantly, with national elections not far away the BJP government would much rather pursue policies that win favour with the Hindu nationalist groups that are vehemently opposed to any interaction with Pakistan. The BJP government is becoming increasingly dependent on their vote bank that has domestic and foreign policy implications. Interestingly, this ultra-nationalism synchronises well with the divisive trend that President Trump seems to have initiated and has become a norm of the US foreign policy.
Imran Khan had endorsed the view that improvement in relations with India could open up new avenues for trade providing it access to the Central Asian States and beyond. But these optimistic scenarios to materialise will have to wait a few years. It is becoming increasingly clear that there are no prospects for detente and Pakistan will have to be prepared to deal with a hostile India in the near future.
There has been considerable criticism that the PM acted in haste in trying to break the logjam with India. This was a reflection of his lack of experience in dealing with foreign policy. The counter-argument that must have motivated Imran Khan was to seize the initiative at the very early stage of his premiership. After all his party enjoys a substantial majority in the National Assembly. People have overwhelmingly supported him in the elections and he should take advantage of the mandate to change the direction of Pakistan-India relations. The irony is that PM Modi is facing innumerable challenges back home and the shine of his party’s rule is giving way to financial scandals and misrule by his party members. The latest episode is the statement by former president of France Hollande that the Indian partner of the Raffale deal was not selected on merit but on recommendations of the BJP leadership. This has put PM Modi and his government on the defensive. And the best way of deflecting peoples’ attention is by choosing the bogey of Pakistan.
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India over the years has built a broad support base in Afghanistan through economic and political support and cultural and media penetration. The US fully supports and encourages India’s dominant role in Afghanistan and this creates problems for Pakistan. Whereas relations with countries is no more a zer- sum game yet India’s relations with Kabul has made it lean heavily towards it. This has, however, not prevented Pakistan from striving to work towards building a stable and long-term institutional relationship with Afghanistan. Whether it would be possible for Afghanistan to maintain a balance in its relations with major neighbours would largely depend on its internal coherence and stability.
For Pakistan the bigger challenge that remains is that how can it transform its relationship with the US and Afghanistan with Indian hostility persisting? Pakistan has been trying but with limited success as Washington looks at it through the Indian and Afghan lens.
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s further deepening of strategic, political and economic ties with China in the form of CPEC and support at international forums provide it greater flexibility to ward off external pressure. Besides, Pakistan’s growing relations with Russia, close and strategic ties with Saudi Arabia and Turkey and good relations with neighbouring Iran provide greater flexibility in dealing with a hostile India. Especially, when it is being supported by Washington to act as a counterweight to China at the regional level. The other area of contention is that the US considers Pakistan not putting enough pressure on the Taliban leadership so that they are willing to engage in finding a political solution. It has also been insisting that Pakistan should take stern measures against radical militant groups that are operating against India. Pakistan’s view has been there are limits to its influence on these groups and has to protect its own interests as well. Moreover, Pakistan cannot be made a scapegoat for India’s excesses in Kashmir or the US failure in achieving a peaceful solution to the Afghan imbroglio.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 26th, 2018.