Written by Sharat Sabharwal
Updated: April 6, 2021 8:57:21 am
Everything said by Bajwa, including the need to make Pakistan a geoeconomic hub, has been said over the years by someone or the other in the Pakistan establishment.
Peace offers, voiced mainly by army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, have come in quick succession from Pakistan of late. What do we make of them?
First, the offers are not trailblazing. Everything said by Bajwa, including the need to make Pakistan a geoeconomic hub, has been said over the years by someone or the other in the Pakistan establishment. During my tenure as High Commissioner (2009 to 2013), there was a strong emphasis in Pakistan’s official discourse on economic security as against only military security and its role as a trade and transit hub. The Indo-Pak trade agenda advanced significantly in 2011-12, though not to its logical conclusion. However, the constructive ideas fell prey subsequently to Pakistan’s security state paradigm and a sharp downturn in the relationship with India. These have resurfaced now, possibly driven by the precarious economic situation and a desire to present a more reasonable face to the Joe Biden administration. Moreover, Bajwa is not the first army chief to make peace overtures. Zia ul Haq launched a “charm offensive” as his western border with Afghanistan grew increasingly turbulent, and productive back-channel discussions on Kashmir were held during the Pervez Musharraf era.
Second, reducing the volatility in the relationship, of which the recent re-affirmation of the 2003 ceasefire is a key element, suits both countries tactically at this juncture. Pakistan’s perennial economic woes, resulting largely from its adversarial posture against India, have worsened following the pandemic. It is keen to come out of the grey list of the Financial Action Task Force, in which India has been a strong voice against it. A calm border with India suits Pakistan, faced as it is with a fast-evolving situation in Afghanistan; as it does India because of the need for greater focus on the LAC with China. Further, the General Officer Commander of the Indian army’s XV Corps has been quoted as saying that a ceasefire helps our forces in checking infiltration. This, in turn, helps us in preserving peace in the valley.
Everything beyond the above tactical imperatives remains as obscure and complex as before. In spite of the renewed ceasefire, the two countries are nowhere close to the relationship that prevailed when the last downturn began around 2013. That would require some more steps, notably: Restoration of diplomatic missions to High Commissioners’ level, resumption of bilateral trade suspended by Pakistan following revocation of J&K’s special status and easing of travel restrictions. Pakistan’s recent decision to import Indian cotton and sugar was withdrawn quickly. It was of a piece with Pakistan’s earlier non-MFN (most-favoured-nation) compliant policy of allowing imports from India selectively. Therefore, its annulment is not significant per se, but it signals a lack of consensus on the earlier peace overtures and is accompanied by the unrealistic demand to rescind India’s August 5, 2019 move.
Further, the composite dialogue held intermittently between 1997 and 2012 was based on the premise that progress on issues such as trade and people-to-people contact should not be held hostage to movement on more intractable issues. However, Pakistan’s recent peace offers place Kashmir front and centre in any future engagement. Its latest precondition to taking the peace process forward is highly counterproductive. Any step by the Indian government in J&K, which is seen as a response to Pakistan’s demands, would be a non-starter. On its part, India continues to place the onus for creating a conducive environment by, inter alia, putting an end to terrorism, on Pakistan. Moreover, short of a devastating war, any pragmatic solution to Kashmir has to be non-territorial. Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi is reported to have attempted such a solution while concluding the Simla agreement in 1972 and it was also the philosophy underlying the discussions with the Musharraf administration. Will the Pakistan establishment be willing to accept such a solution without the urge to interfere with India’s management of J&K under its Constitution?
There are additional imponderables. Will the severely cramped political space in India for diplomacy with Pakistan permit the steps that may be necessary to expand the nascent thaw? More importantly, will General Bajwa be able to override the Pakistan army’s firmly held institutional interest of sustaining the India bogey to justify its prime place in Pakistan’s polity? He said recently that without the resolution of Kashmir, the process of subcontinental rapprochement would remain susceptible to politically motivated bellicosity.
The above considerations warrant circumspection in our response. More than conciliatory words and the restraining of Pakistan’s terror machine, which have been found to be tactical and reversible in the past, it is steps like the willingness to work for a pragmatic and forward-looking solution to Kashmir without resorting to terror, building a normal, MFN trading relationship with India, permitting India transit to Afghanistan and beyond, and not blocking SAARC initiatives, particularly those for intra-regional connectivity, that would signal a strategic shift in the attitude of the Pakistani establishment. We are nowhere close to that situation. The U-turn on import of sugar and cotton seems to rule out even modest steps to build upon the ceasefire and restore the relationship to the earlier level. The best we can do under the circumstances is to keep the door open for diplomatic engagement and be willing to cooperate with Pakistan’s shift to a constructive economic agenda, should it climb down from its impractical demand concerning the August 5, 2019 move and put its money where its mouth is. In the meanwhile, we should do our bit to preserve the ceasefire and keep the rhetoric in check with a view to managing this complex relationship better than has been possible because of the extreme volatility over the last few years.
This column first appeared in the print edition on April 6, 2021 under the title ‘A false down’. The writer is former High Commissioner to Pakistan. Views are personal