A moment of hope has turned into an ugly diplomatic spat between India and Pakistan. The manner in which the latest episode of this unending saga played out shows that India, which is a few months away from national elections, is not ready for talks with its warring neighbour.
In just a matter of 48-hours, hopes for a resumption of dialogue first, rose and then collapsed in an ugly heap – an evidence that the two South Asian countries really have no real policy towards each other – except trade accusations.
On September 20, India’s ministry of external affairs ( MEA) acknowledged receiving a letter from Pakistan’s newly elected Prime Minister (PM), Imran Khan, to the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, wherein he proposed that the bilateral meeting between the leaders of both the countries was the only way forward to resolve all the outstanding issues including Jammu and Kashmir. Khan suggested the meeting of foreign ministers of both the nations on the sidelines of the United National General Assembly (UNGA) at New York this year. It now seems the letter to Modi was an outcome of the discussions that U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, had with Pakistani Prime Minister and other officials during the recent visit to Islamabad.
Initially, the Indian government decided to go ahead with the proposed meeting, but suddenly it did a volte-face making people wonder why the decision to resume dialogue was taken in the first place. As soon as the talks were announced, hyper-nationalist channels that make a living from spewing hate launched a vicious campaign against Pakistan for abetting terror. The usual line up of retired Generals and members of intel services raved and ranted against the resumption of talks wondering how the government can reconcile with a neighbour that was cutting the heads of Indian soldiers. It was amply conveyed to the government and the nationalist audience that this was not the time to be seen in the same photo frame with the neighbours. Quick internal assessment within the BJP – perhaps based on google trends – brought home this message that Modi government cannot afford to repeat Vajpayee’s overtures to Pakistan before 2004 elections.
The ostensible grounds for cancellation were Pakistan’s release of stamps of Hizbul Mujahideen’s commander Burhan Wani in July this year and the killing of a border guard by insurgents in Jammu and Kashmir. Indian government viewed both these developments as disappointing, and hence, cited these reasons for taking a step back. But, soon after, Khan took his angst on to Twitter by suggesting that Modi was one of those “small men that occupy high positions”. This ill-advised retort from an angry Khan has ensured that the India-Pakistan bilateral relationship continues to be on a back burner till the time the new government gets elected in 2019.
However, nothing groundbreaking was expected from this meeting even if the leaders would have met in the upcoming UNGA meet. The meet was envisioned as an opportunity to find some common grounds to resume talks but given the acrimonious nature of the present ties, it was unlikely to have broken much ice.
There is near unanimity that dialogue is necessary to prevent a nuclear catastrophe between the two nuclear-armed neighbours, India and Pakistan. In the past, U.S. government officials have insisted, though denied by the two neighbours, of coming close to using the nuclear option. The attack on the Parliament of India in 2001 was one such occasion.
Ties between the two countries also nosedived after 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks. Since then, New Delhi has been asking Islamabad to bring the perpetrators of Mumbai attacks to justice and not allow its soil to be used by terrorists against India, a charge that Pakistan vehemently denies. There was a formal resumption of dialogue but little progress was made in improving the relationship. In 2014, the Narendra Modi government took a big step by inviting all the heads of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) nations to attend his swearing-in ceremony which included the leadership from Pakistan as well. In another unexpected political engagement, Prime Minister Modi also visited Pakistan and met the then PM Nawaz Sharif in 2015, a move which was welcomed by the latter. Both of these steps had surprised many and were perceived as a positive gesture on both the sides of the border. However, true to the saga of taking one step forward and two backwards that is synonymous with India and Pakistan, a terrorist attack on the Pathankot air base in 2016 disrupted the relative thaw in ties. In the last four years, the diplomatic relationship of India and Pakistan has been swinging like a pendulum. The tension has increased more on the Line of Control (LoC) and the ceasefire violation has multiplied in the last few years. After the Uri attack in September 2016, the relationship suffered a huge setback and there has been a complete deadlock between India and Pakistan, leaving no space for any communication. Moreover, the political rhetoric increased. Furthermore, both the countries have also asked their respective diplomats to leave each other’s country within a few hours. Mr. Khan after coming to power tried to seize the initiative with his Indian counterpart to improve ties, but, unless Pakistan’s leadership which is backed by the Army, takes a position on the issue of terrorism, such statements will not make any substantive progress.
Hostility between India and Pakistan, some argue, is largely characterised by their territorial disputes which originated during the partition of 1947. The non-resolution of these disputes has, however, widened the scope of the overall conflict with non-state actors taking the centre stage, and in the last several years, terrorism has emerged as a major bone of contention between India and Pakistan. Given the animosity between India and Pakistan, their relationship is of ‘enduring rivalry’ and several experts view it from the perspective of ‘zero-sum’ calculations. Possibly, the back-channel diplomatic outreaches or Track 2 talks are best suited for India and Pakistan. Suspension of dialogue will not lead India and Pakistan anywhere. For the normalisation of relations, India and Pakistan need to be at least on the same page. At the moment, no significant political overture can be expected from Narendra Modi’s government regarding its policies towards Pakistan because of the next year’s Lok Sabha elections in India. It is truly unfortunate that domestic compulsions have held the peace process ransom between the troubled neighbours where brewing tensions can bring unforeseen destabilization of the region.