Are Pakistan-India relations doomed forever?

Enmity does not require permission, but friendship is by mutual consent — something that both India and Pakistan have consistently lacked for the last several decades.
Published May 3, 2023

Pakistan-India ties find themselves in a strange place. The relationship is strained, the leadership is estranged, and the people are aloof. A state of ominous peace prevails, but neither country is pushed to do anything about it.

Enmity does not require permission, but friendship is by mutual consent — something that both India and Pakistan have consistently lacked for the last several decades. The last and longest search for such a consent was conducted during President Musharraf and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s tenures as chronicled by Ambassador Satish Lambah in his memoirs, In Pursuit of Peace: India-Pakistan Relations under Six Prime Ministers (2023). The search remained incomplete, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shown little interest in its revival, much less fulfilment.

With Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari scheduled to travel to Goa for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Council of Foreign Ministers’ conclave tomorrow, now’s a good time as any to take stock of the recent history between the two nations and reflect on whether there’s any hope for a rapprochement in the near future.

The past oppresses the present

Traditionally, there have been a host of factors blocking the road to peace between India and Pakistan. First, the shadow of history has darkened the neighbours’ view of each other. Both countries’ objectives and policies collide and their relationship remains marred by lingering tensions, rooted in religion, culture and identity, and by conflicting versions of history. Pakistan has desired normalisation but as an equal, and regards Kashmir as the defining issue for peace and friendship. India, for its part, rejects these assumptions.

Meanwhile, each country has remained an indelible fixture of the other’s domestic politics. Weak governments on both sides have found it politically difficult to normalise relations. A strong government in India felt it could talk but only on its terms, while in Pakistan the civil-military power play prevented the consensus on India.

It is no wonder then that only a strong government in India and a military ruler in Pakistan found it possible to have any meaningful dialogue. But even that did not succeed. Any other talks have been a dialogue to nowhere, often ending before they even began.

Enter Modi

Modi clearly had a plan for relations with Pakistan, and it was unlike anything seen before. It was part of a new paradigm of India’s domestic and foreign policies. His foreign policy fortified the trend that began around 1991 to enhance engagement with great powers, especially the United States, to help raise India’s economic weight, military potential, and diplomatic stature. This served shared interests of both India and the US by advancing India’s hegemony in the region, and by furthering US policies towards Pakistan and China.

There were, no doubt, important domestic stimuli too at work; the Pakistan policy represented the historical RSS view of Muslims, Pakistan and Kashmir that provided the ideological underpinnings of Modi’s mindset. But his support in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) went much beyond his Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) — a Hindu nationalist organisation — base. Marketing-savvy and skilled in the use of digital tools, Modi has tapped into the party’s traditional nationalist ideology, and by bundling it with his populist economic agenda and Pakistan policy, not only broadened his own support base in the BJP, but also that of the party across the country.

Ambassador Lambah had hoped he would continue his back channel role under Prime Minister Modi. After being kept on hold, he was told thanks, but no thanks. Modi’s plan was not to talk but to fix Pakistan — and for that, he did not need Lambah, but Ajit Doval.

The plan was put in operation in a piecemeal manner. It began with a charm offensive, as Modi had come into power with a controversial image internationally — in 2005, Modi who was then chief minister of India’s Gujarat state had his US visa revoked and was denied permission to enter the country — and was not sure how he would be received by the US. So he started with good optics and friendly posturing towards Pakistan, aimed at the international community, India’s liberal intelligentsia, and non-BJP domestic electorate. He wanted to build wider support for his Pakistan policy within India, and sufficient tolerance for it internationally.

Knowing well the power of the modern media, Modi began by inviting Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to his swearing in. The media just ran away with the news, convinced that something new and exciting was happening that would make a good story. In reality, however, the invitation was no more than a public relations exercise. All the Saarc leaders had been invited to what was essentially a ceremonial occasion. Similarly, the air dash to Lahore on Nawaz’s birthday in December 2015 had no substantive outcome, but had a dramatic impact internationally, especially in Washington. All this projected Modi as keen for good relations with Pakistan.

The public relations exercise was, no doubt, also targeted at the debate in Pakistan over relations with India. Modi may have hoped that if Nawaz Sharif could deliver by agreeing to India’s terms of engagement, well and good. If not, at least it would have advanced the case of those who favoured normal relations with India. In this particular event, Nawaz Sharif lost the debate — and his job.

Meanwhile, internationally, Modi had managed to convince many that he had done his best to normalise relations with Pakistan, but the latter did not respond in kind. And Pakistan, with its lack of strategy for India, principally because of the civil-military discord over the definition of relations with India, gave ample opportunities to Modi to paint Pakistan exactly the way it would suit his plan — to seek US backing and domestic support to his hardline policies.

These opportunities came in the way of the alleged actions of militant groups over which Pakistan had either lost control or lacked the political will or capacity, or both, to control them. The terrorist attacks in Pathankot in January 2016 and Uri in September 2016, played right into Modi’s hands.

By avoiding a military response to these attacks, he skilfully showed Pakistan as the spoiler to peace with India. The cancellation of talks with Pakistan and sabotage of the Saarc summit brought the focus on Pakistan’s ‘behaviour’, while earning India praise internationally for its ‘restraint’. The US’ displeasure over Pakistan’s role in the failing Afghanistan war and with its closeness to Beijing, Indian policies were now beating to the same rhythm.

Modi’s real intentions and policies were the exact opposite to his theatrics of inviting Nawaz Sharif and visiting him in Lahore given the fact that he used the flimsiest of excuses, such as the Pakistan High Commissioner to India’s meeting with Kashmiri leaders in August 2014 to call off the planned Foreign Secretaries talks. Meanwhile, the terrorism incidents helped him shut the door on Pakistan completely, which he did not have to do. India and Pakistan could have still talked, but Modi chose not to, for his own purposes.

At home, the terrorist attacks, exploited by Modi through social media and friendly electronic media, triggered an enormous emotional response from the Indian citizenry. His non-military response made India look like a victim. The terrorism issue helped Modi with the military too as it broadened the scope of conflict with Pakistan and enlarged the concept of national security, elevating the military’s national profile. On Pakistan, Modi managed to bring everyone on the same page.

Here comes Jaishankar

Modi, whose own approach to Pakistan was based on raw power, wielded with the help of an increasingly assertive military capability and confident bureaucratic institutions of a rising India, got intellectual underpinning with the arrival of Subrahmanyam Jaishankar as the foreign minister in May 2019. Jaishankar’s strategic acumen, combined with a correct understanding of the emerging geopolitics, has enabled India to maximise opportunities and minimise risks. According to C Raja Mohan, a noted Indian analyst who is close to Jaishankar, “the Modi government has broken out of … [a] defensive and deferential mindset”.

Jaishankar has pursued “India-First” policies, aimed at making no new enemies and losing no old friends, while turning the emerging geopolitics greatly to India’s advantage. He has done this by making use of the great power rivalry without being caught up in it. A rising India is now not only a vital player in US foreign policy, but also an increasingly attractive partner to others, partly due to reality and partly due to an illusion — the reality of the economic and strategic opportunities that India offers, and the illusion of being a “democratic counterweight to China”. Nevertheless, India is going to host a number of high-profile summits, including the upcoming SCO meet and the G20 summit later this year.

While India’s relations with the rest of the world continue to march forward, the ties with Pakistan have gone into “virtual dormancy” since 2019 — when isolating Pakistan had run its course. Modi found from his forward policy in the Pulwama incident that aggression worked as it helped highlight Pakistan as having provoked the Indian response and thus responsible for provoking the risk of conflict. It would put the spotlight on Pakistan as a reckless actor, endangering peace in the region. Modi did not want to do anything more — he did not need to.

It was now time for India to cash in on the achievements of the Pakistan policy. Emboldened by the fact that he had gotten away with all his overreach so far, at home and abroad, was enough for Modi to assume that his August 5, 2019, action in occupied Kashmir would not cause any stir in the international community, both because of India’s rising importance and Pakistan’s diminished standing.

At the same time, Pakistan had been severely constrained by the FATF, a struggling economy, a troubled Afghanistan and strained relations with Washington. A focus on combatting external challenges at the cost of internal order, prolonged neglect of the economy, and an obsession with geopolitics had weakened Pakistan at home and made it less influential abroad. Finally, by revoking Indian-occupied Kashmir’s special autonomy, Modi put the dispute beyond Pakistan’s diplomatic reach.

For India, it was time to move on from trying to isolate Pakistan to ignoring it. By treating Pakistan as irrelevant, India’s calculus was not to focus too much on the region to avoid a situation that might distract from its new found global profile. That was partly the reason for the February 2021 ceasefire agreement in Kashmir.

The ceasefire no doubt helped ease tensions along the LOC and helped the Kashmiris on both sides. At the same time, it enabled India to shift some of its forces to its border with China as well as draw applause abroad. But any hopes of better relations between India and Pakistan emerging from the Kashmir ceasefire were overblown. The agreement had promised no such thing.

Kashmir is now India’s ‘core issue’

India has a foreign policy and it has a Pakistan policy. They do intersect, but largely run parallel to each other. Factors playing on the foreign policy are not always the same as those that impact the ‘Pakistan policy’. Hindutava runs the latter. The corporate sector and business interests are a factor in the foreign policy but not much in the relations with Pakistan, where the normalisation of India’s control of Kashmir is the priority now. In some strange way, Kashmir may have become India’s core issue.

India will not talk with Pakistan unless it stops insisting on pre-conditions related to occupied Kashmir. That is the condition for the talks. Any progress in the talks is also linked to Kashmir. India’s foremost objective from any form of normalisation will be to make Pakistan accept the new power realities and the absorption of Kashmir by India — after a decent interval, if not now. In other words, India will open the door to normalisation by shutting the door to Kashmir. Secondly, India feels it cannot rise under the threat of destabilisation by non-state actors from across the border, and Pakistan would have to address that issue as well if it desires friendly relations.

The fact of the matter is that India feels it is not missing anything from a lack of normalisation, including economic benefits. Pakistan’s real value as an economic partner will not show up until Afghanistan is stabilised and Pakistan becomes a hub for pipelines and trade with Central Asia. Such a prospect is years, if not decades, away.

So for India, there is neither the compulsion nor an incentive to normalise relations with Islamabad in the immediate future. For now, India is quite comfortable with what Mohan has termed as “minimalism in its relations with Pakistan”. Courting an economic disaster, the compulsion may now be Pakistan’s to normalise relations with India, or to have some form of economic cooperation to say the least.

What may change on Pakistan’s side?

In recent years, while India may have thought it did not gain anything from normalisation, Pakistan felt it did not lose anything from the lack of it. But Pakistan may now be having second thoughts. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has called for dialogue thrice within his nine months in office.

Strategic parity alone does not resolve critical nation and state building challenges. It is just one element of national strength, whose totality consists of security, economic progress and political stability.

Look at Pakistan’s internal security challenges: Baloch insurgents are getting more active and the threat from the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), emboldened by the return of the Afghan Taliban to power, has become even more grave. In 2022, terrorism-related deaths in Pakistan rose by 120 per cent to more than 600 in over 100 attacks sponsored and led by the TTP and some separatist groups — a number slightly higher than that in Afghanistan. Peace with India may undercut the suspected external support of these groups.

Pakistan could start with the offer to open up economic relations with India, at least in some select areas. That may not be of much help to Pakistan’s economy as it has structural issues but will at least not require Pakistan to impose any pre-conditions regarding occupied Kashmir. It will, however, give Islamabad some leverage. “Regional trade builds peace constituencies,” wrote former foreign secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry in this publication. That may now be the only way to help the Kashmiris as any armed leverage of Pakistan over Kashmir has long become a thing of the past and is no longer an option, if it ever was.

A group of former Indian envoys to Pakistan, at a recent event held in Delhi to discuss Lambah’s book, has advised India to at least take small steps such as the posting of High Commissioners, relaxation of visa regime to help people-to-people contact, and resumption of trade talks. Speaking at the event, Shiv Shankar Menon, former High Commissioner to Pakistan and National Security Adviser (2010-2014) gave an important advice to India: “Ultimately, it will be harder to prosper and grow if the neighbourhood is in chaos.”

Unfortunately, no movement in the current stalemate, whether in economic relations or any other area, seems possible for at least the foreseeable future. As another former High Commissioner of India to Pakistan, TCA Raghavan, said at the event, “while India-Pakistan talks are needed, it is clear that there is little appetite [for it] in India”.

The upcoming elections in Pakistan in 2023 and in India in 2024 will keep the relations in the current holding pattern. A hardline approach towards Pakistan has helped Modi’s electoral politics in the past. He may, therefore, like to keep the relations at the current neutral level, where gears can be changed easily and tensions can be ratcheted up if and when needed.

Pakistan, meanwhile, has to remain on its guard while keeping the hopes alive of a much-needed improvement in relations after the Indian elections. The interim period should be an opportunity to set the house in order, without which neither India-Pakistan relations nor Pakistan itself will get anywhere.

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