One does not need to be a rocket scientist to know Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has robbed whatever little credibility civilian Governments in his country have, with his multiple policy flip flops. Just like one does not need to be an astute political pundit to know Prime Minister Modi is not like former PM Rajiv Gandhi in wanting to leave contentious border disputes to the ‘wisdom of the next generation’. If anything, PM Modi has enough political capital to push through a resolution. Amidst the contrast in the two civilian leaderships of the hostile neighbors, how does one read the present India-Pakistan situation? Is there any prospect of peace, given that even baby steps like trade, resumption of sporting ties are not possible in the present vitiated atmosphere? There are reasons to assume a positive movement will take place in India-Pakistan ties, for three clear reasons.
One, the Pakistani economy cannot continue the present status quo – of next to nothing trade with India. Islamabad is on its thirteenth loan from the IMF and the economy is now battling a crippling inflation. Adding to its economic woes is Pakistan’s surging wheat imports. After years of being self-sufficient, Pakistan is now being forced to import wheat to feed its people. Even if one discounts any comparisons with Bangladesh -which is growing at an impressive 8 percent with higher GDP and four times more forex collections – Pakistani economy needs help. It is not for nothing that Pakistani Army Chief spoke about Geo-economics in his much talked-about speech on 18th of March. No amount of jingo-ism can cover up for the present economic woes of the Pakistanis. Pakistani Army understands this even more given that it is one of the key stakeholders in the economy. If it were not for its obsession to ‘check mate’ India, would the Pakistani economy – with its excessive defence spends – be in such a mess? Opening up trade with India will be the first set of ‘baby steps’ that are needed towards any normalization. But more importantly, will be vital for fixing the Pakistani economy.
The worst of Pakistan’s economic mess is yet to present itself, in the form of large payouts to China. China has invested heavily in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is a vital part of its Belt and Road Initiative. China is a rent seeking country, not an aid-granting friend. And sooner than later, China will extract its pound of flesh from Pakistan for the large amount of funds it has invested in the strategically located country. In fact, the few sane voices in the Pakistani establishment must be wondering what would have been Islamabad’s relations with Beijing, if the former was not focused only on its India hatred. It would have had normal ties with China and not become its vassal state-only because it sought to undermine New Delhi. In the process, though, it has become heavily indebted to Beijing. As payments would start, so would Pakistan’s economic headaches.
Second, the happenings in Afghanistan-keenly watched by Islamabad-may have a bearing on the India-Pakistan conundrum. If some reports are to be believed, the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan could pave the way for a multi-nation UN team to oversee the nation does not fall into chaos. It would be logical to assume New Delhi’s inclusion in the same, since US has always favored India to play a larger role. Such an outcome would be least desirable for Islamabad since it will undercut its geo-strategic importance and reduce its bargaining power with America. It would not be out of the ordinary to assume some of the back channel lines of communication may include Afghanistan and the role both India and Pakistan would play in it. After all, Pakistan- which now has diminishing returns from its Kashmir rhetoric- has not been able to successfully rake up support of global powers on the issue of abrogation of Article 370. On the contrary, Islamabad stands to gain significantly by leveraging its role in Kabul post American exit. So will Imran Khan (or his military bosses) want to risk a larger play in Afghanistan by holding onto the Kashmir issue? Or would they choose to show some positive gestures (like ceasefire) on Kashmir, in return for continuing its important position in determining Kabul’s future? The answer to this is clear, but its implementation will be decided by the fate of ‘informal’ talks between India and Pakistan. Nevertheless, it will be an important choice to make for all decision makers in Pakistan (which may or may not include Mr Khan).
Thirdly, in July, some elements in the Pakistani Army and the civilian Government will rake up the issue of integration of Gilgit Baltistan and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir as fifth and sixth provinces. Imran Khan may not be able to resist the temptation to be seen as similar to PM Modi (post abrogation of Article 370). This will quite naturally, invite a strong response from New Delhi, since the present dispensation has spoken about the will and determination to reclaim both these areas. If such a situation does arise, it will limit the flexibility that can be shown by the Indian side or its Pakistani counterpart to move beyond the usual irritants. Since 5th of August 2019, Indian Government has made its stance clear – ‘all future discussion will now be only on PoK’ has been the usual response. Likewise, Pakistani Army’s institutional legitimacy has been centered on the need to wage a war with India to ‘solve the Kashmir issue’. If PoK becomes a Pakistani province, pressure from domestic constituents will be so intense that both sides will not be able to make any forward movement, lest they will be termed as being a ‘sell out’. Given these complexities, there is a high chance these negotiations- being held behind closed doors and outside the purview of formal diplomatic channels- would expedite any outcome.
India and Pakistan are not doomed to live in hatred, hostility and tension. Despite false starts and multiple attempts by India – which have been followed by terror attacks by Pakistan – PM Modi may be keen to move beyond. Right now, peace looks elusive, but a peace process does not. By all aspects, it is clear the process is thriving and may succeed in thrashing out some of the differences.
A peaceful solution does not need to decide the fate of the most complex geo-political problem of the subcontinent right away; it needs to demonstrate the will to do so.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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