ISLAMABAD: An escalation between India and Pakistan is highly unlikely, but the upcoming change of command in the Pakistan Army and general elections in both neighbouring countries would not allow for any major progress towards normalisation of bilateral ties either, at least for another couple of years.
This was the crux of a discussion between current and former senior Pakistani and Indian diplomats and security officials, including those from the intelligence agencies of the two countries, and politicians at an event hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, an international think tank, in Muscat.
Held last weekend, the meeting, which was a sort of Track 1.5 engagement, covered a wide range of topics that keep influencing the India-Pakistan relationship, fraught with mutual mistrust and antagonism. Besides the usual topics like Kashmir, terrorism and trade, the two sides also exchanged views on developments related to China and Afghanistan, as these could potentially alter the regional calculus.
One participant said the objective of the meeting was to talk about the potential risks of escalation and possibilities of normalisation between the two nuclear-armed neighbours, who have had minimal engagement for nearly two decades, more so since India annexed occupied Kashmir by revoking Article 370 in August 2019.
‘Track 1.5’ style consultation precludes any tangible steps until after appointment of army chief in Pakistan, elections in both countries
“No major steps are likely as the Indians seem comfortable that there is no crisis and LoC ceasefire is holding,” one of the dialogue participants told Dawn while sharing a sense of the discussion.
While Prime Minister Narendra Modi looks to transform India into a principally Hindu nation, inflaming anti-Muslim sentiments and anti-Pakistan rhetoric, many felt hopeful when PM Modi greeted the newly elected Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif in April. The optimism was premised on the assumption that the Sharifs and their principal ally PPP, whose chairman was given the charge of foreign ministry, have traditionally been more amenable to improvement in ties with India.
Mr Khan, in contrast, had kept a harsh tone on India. Yet, no progress took place.
The strategists in India, according to what some Indian participants said during the Muscat meeting, now believe that Pakistan is in a transition phase with a new army chief set to take command towards the end of November and elections likely in 2023. Therefore, they think now is not the right time to make any peace overtures.
Moreover, India will be holding elections in 2024.
Contrary to public perception of PM Shehbaz being soft on India, the Indian participants said they see little difference in Pakistan’s India policy under the incumbent and former premiers. Talking about the possible outcomes of 2023 elections, they felt if Mr Khan returns to the office, he would be better positioned for a meaningful dialogue with India.
The Indian focus during this period would, therefore, be on maintaining the status quo rather than going for normalisation.
At the same time, they believe resumption of trade could be helpful for improving the environment for an eventual normalisation, whenever it takes place.
A Pakistani participant, while emphasising that Indians were not serious about normalisation and used terrorism allegations as a coverup for avoiding engagement, reminded that Pakistan had recently provided intelligence to India that led to arrest of militants in Ahmedabad, but still there was no reciprocation from Delhi.
Published in Dawn, September 25th, 2022