To revive relations with India, Pakistan must put its own house in order first

Pakistan’s suspension of trade ties with India was a classic case of emotions trumping reason, arguably a sin in foreign affairs.
Published June 23, 2023

Last month, the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs of the National Assembly of Pakistan organised a public hearing on “the present and future of India-Pakistan relations”. The list of speakers included journalists, think tank representatives, a veteran diplomat, an academic, members of parliament, and the Chairman of the Committee, Mohsin Dawar.

The ensuing discussion shed light on various aspects of the current state of the bilateral relationship between the two countries. The event took place shortly after the visit of Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari to Goa for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) foreign ministers’ meeting. Naturally, his trip to India became a significant part of the discussion.

If anyone was hoping, Bilawal’s trip could not break the ice between Pakistan and India. On the contrary, the top diplomats of the two states ended up in a war of words. Once again, India did not give any signs of recognising the olive branch that Pakistan has been waving for quite some time. In January this year, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif “conditionally” offered talks to India on all outstanding issues. India’s reply: “The atmosphere for dialogue is not conducive yet”.

In fact, over the last few years, India has shown no flexibility to tone down its “talks and terrorism cannot go hand-in-hand” narrative to normalise ties with Pakistan. This rhetoric was also reflected in the joint statement issued by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Joe Biden during the former’s visit to Washington earlier this week. The statement called on Pakistan to crack down on extremists that target New Delhi.

“[The two leaders] strongly condemned cross-border terrorism, the use of terrorist proxies and called on Pakistan to take immediate action to ensure that no territory under its control is used for launching terrorist attacks,” the statement said.

India’s hubris and a ‘twice failed state’

At this point in history, expecting any flexibility from India towards Pakistan, especially on its position on the Kashmir dispute, is comical. With the fourth largest economy, the world’s largest population, and superpowers lined up to court it, India is riding on the high tide.

Had Pakistan been in its place, we would probably not have been any different — arrogant and eager to impose our versions of solutions to historical disputes. In international affairs, the calculus of power dictates state actions.

Today, the power imbalance between Pakistan and India has rendered Pakistan almost irrelevant in India’s strategic calculus. A failing, fragmented state — if not a “twice failed state,” as former diplomat Ashraf Jahangir Qazi puts it, begging the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for the revival of its deal is hardly a threat anymore to a rising giant like India.

The new India is uncomfortable with even a mention of Kashmir as a disputed territory. That’s precisely what many believe happened before Bilawal and Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s foreign minister, ended up in a kerfuffle. Journalist Munizae Jahangir, who was part of Bilawal’s delegation, and one of the speakers at the public hearing, believes it was the mention of Kashmir in Bilawal’s interviews with two Indian journalists that “irked” the Indian foreign minister. Even though Kashmir was not mentioned in the official statement delivered by Bilawal in his speech at the main event.

India’s hubris and Pakistan’s existential crisis have brought diplomatic ties to a stalemate. India’s hubris, because power has deluded it to the extent that it feels it cannot be, like other great powers, restricted by ‘weak’ international law and UN resolutions. Pakistan’s existential crisis, resulting from the incompetence of its ruling elite, has brought the country into the ranks of Burundi, Gabon, and Afghanistan on various important indices.

As a result, India won’t talk, and it doesn’t matter if Pakistan does. This wasn’t the case 20 years ago when the two countries almost agreed on General Pervez Musharraf’s four-point formula. The fact that the formula was centred on Kashmir shows that the two countries were operating on relatively equal footing. But that is not the case anymore.

The two countries are, as veteran journalist Zahid Hussein put it, in a “no peace, no war” situation. After India’s unilateral revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status on Aug 5, 2019, Pakistan suspended ties with India. It asked Ajay Bisaria, India’s former High Commissioner to Pakistan to leave, put an end to trade, and made any future engagement with India contingent on the latter’s reversal of its August 5 decision.

Two years later, India is not even ready to talk about Kashmir, let alone reverse its decision to annul Articles 370 and 35A of its Constitution. Regarding trade, India feels the onus is on Pakistan to resume it because it was the one that suspended it. And Pakistan’s ego would not allow it to do so unless there was some face-saving to make the reversal more palatable to the Pakistani public. The result: a deadlock.

Where do we go from here?

To begin with, we must have clarity on the basics.

One, foreign policy begins at home. Two, economic power is the most significant determinant of state power in today’s day and age. Put together, one will understand that Pakistan cannot succeed in persuading India to come to the negotiating table until it has its own house in order and unless it becomes a significant stakeholder in the world economy.

Unfortunately, a cohesive body politic and a well-functioning domestic order will not come about until Pakistan continues to be governed by, as Qazi put it in his speech at the public hearing, “plutocratic governments”, the ones “governed by the power of wealth and money.”

“The military-led ruling elite, bureaucracy, feudal landlords, the new industrial merchants, and the religious establishment,” he said, “have collectively and resolutely prevented any substantial or sustained socioeconomic reform.” I cannot agree more.

The foremost objective of Pakistan’s long-term strategy should be the socio-economic revival of the country. Such a revival will not come about by expressing the desire for it in Public Sector Development Programmes, Annual Development Programmes, and multi-year ‘visions’ issued by the Planning Commission, but only if the hearts and minds of the people who have the power to change the destiny of this nation believe in it. It is more a question of will than competence. A consensus at the level of elites to radically move away from extractive practices and towards inclusive practices is needed. Establishing the rule of law in the true sense of the term will be the first step.

On the diplomatic front, to create any chance of ending the stalemate, Pakistan should work towards reviving back channels with India. The resumption of Track 1.5 and Track 2 channels is crucial. Unfortunately, the Modi government has disrupted all back-channel contacts between the two countries, and back-channel efforts have failed in the recent past.

That should not discourage us from suggesting readiness to open back channels with India, as there is still a considerable body of the Indian public, elite, and intelligentsia that would want to see those channels opened. Moreover, India understands well that with the rise of regionalism in the post-Cold War era and many important countries focusing on “neighbourhood first” policies, it cannot perpetually ignore Pakistan.

Hussein, who has been part of Pakistan’s Track 2 diplomacy with India, shared an interesting anecdote in his speech from the last Track 2 meeting that he attended in Bangkok. A senior Indian leader and close acquaintance of Modi, told him that Modi was “waiting to win the elections in 2024” before he would initiate talks with Pakistan because “Mr Modi wants to leave a positive legacy.”

Pakistan’s suspension of trade ties with India was a classic case of emotions trumping reason, arguably a sin in foreign affairs. Trade with India is beneficial for Pakistan and vice versa. Even when a crisis hits, countries with serious security disputes often do not disrupt trade.

Pakistan must normalise trade with India. If the onus is on Pakistan to revive it, so be it. Resuming trade with India would not compromise Pakistan’s principled position on Kashmir. It’s a win-win. Still, if one argues for no engagement with India, one is not acting as a friend of Kashmir. As Mirwaiz Umer Farooq told Jahangir when asked about engagement between Pakistan and India in the aftermath of India’s August 5 actions, “When the two giants fight, only the grass suffers. That grass is Kashmir.” If Pakistan does not engage with India, there is no hope of a resolution of the dispute.

Notwithstanding the efforts to normalise ties, engagement with India should not come at the cost of compromising our principled and morally right position on the Kashmir issue. India’s brutalities and human rights violations in Kashmir must be condemned by every peace-loving, democratic nation — most ferociously by us because we are a party to the dispute.

We have every right under international law to support Kashmir’s legitimate struggle against an occupying force. Although we have disappointed Kashmiris with what we have made of ourselves, which has resulted in them losing any hope of resolution of the dispute through us, we are duty-bound to continue our diplomatic efforts, on behalf of the generations of Kashmiris who have banked their hopes on us, to make a case for Kashmir’s right to self-determination.

The decision of China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, and Oman to stay away from the G20 meeting on tourism hosted by India in the disputed territory of Kashmir is evidence of the fact that Pakistan’s diplomatic efforts to keep the Kashmir issue alive are not in vain. It was a diplomatic upset for India which was trying its best to project an image of normalcy in a heavily militarised Kashmir region as well as a necessary reminder to India that the world still sees Kashmir as a disputed territory and not as an “internal matter” of India.

Header image: Pakistan and India flag in a magnify glass on world map. — Source: GR Stocks/Shutterstock