Are these empty gestures or substantive movement in Pakistan-India relations?
There has recently been an exchange of messages between the Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan. Essentially, they were 'greetings' for Pakistan Day. These otherwise normal professional courtesies sound unusual in the India Pakistan context, coming at a tense time of new lows between the two countries over the past year and a half.
Pro forma gestures could thus perhaps be construed as an inflection point-- a desire to start repair work signified by the LoC ceasefire joint statement between the two militaries and a readiness on the part of Pakistan to extend a 'hand of friendship in all directions.’ It has since transpired that a 'discreet' back channel has been at work and reportedly some positive vibes have been received from India.
As far as Pakistan is concerned, a paradigm shift towards 'economic security' takes center stage with economic development being rated as strategic priority number one. This requires stability and peace at home and in the wider region. A similar shift towards regional stability and peace is not yet evident as far as India is concerned.
India remains glued to geopolitics and creating a sphere of hegemonic influence in South Asia, by bending the will of its smaller neighbors into submission. It believes that this is now sanctioned by the western powers in the context of the Indo-Pacific strategy, which confers on India the role of a 'security provider' in the Indian Ocean region.
The prospects of working a rapprochement between Pakistan and India is thus predicated on vastly different world views and assumptions. Pakistan, unlike other neighbors of India, enjoys strategic and conventional parity with India. It will only entertain good and friendly relations on the basis of 'equality' and seek a just and peaceful settlement of differences and disputes, especially the Jammu and Kashmir issue.
These long pending issues cannot be brushed aside. As a pre-requisite towards normalization, Pakistan insists that India create an 'enabling environment.’ Specifically, this means ending Indian repression against Kashmiris and rolling back unilateral measures taken by India to change the status and demography of the State of Jammu and Kashmir.
Theoretically, all of this should be within reach. But the fundamental disconnect is the premium on exercising 'hard power' by India in Kashmir and its hegemonic attitude and policies to dominate the region.
Some steps at cooling the temperature are necessary. The first was the respect for the ceasefire along the LoC and renewed commitment to the ground and air agreements and understandings that fall under the 'CBM' rubric of the two militaries. Restoration of diplomatic relations to the level of High Commissioners is doable.
Pakistan had earlier signalled its willingness to restore trade relations, but decided not to go ahead with it last week.
Granting India transit access to Afghanistan and Central Asia would require reciprocal measures and depends substantially on India's willingness to satisfactorily address Kashmiri grievances.
There have been suggestions to revive regional economic cooperation under SAARC’s auspices. Pakistan will be happy to host the next SAARC Summit, if India were to lift its objections. This could open up prospects of development cooperation across a whole range of matters that could be described as 'South Asian Commons' and include climate change, water, pandemic control as well as poverty alleviation.
Theoretically, all of this should be within reach. But the fundamental disconnect is the premium on exercising 'hard power' by India in Kashmir and its hegemonic attitude and policies to dominate the region. The ruling party and its ideological mentor, the RSS's passionate espousal of creating Akhand Bharat or greater India stretching from Central Asia to East Asia, remains a delusional aspect of India's strategic policies and unfortunately resonates amply in its domestic politics.
Nascent exploratory steps aimed at reducing tensions and working towards normalizing relations between Pakistan and India will require the encouragement and support of the international community, especially of major powers.
China has welcomed these initial steps. The US now enjoys considerable influence in New Delhi and could do more, especially by adopting a more forthright position on upholding the human rights of the Kashmiri people.
Providing comfort to the Kashmiris will unlock the vast potential of mutually beneficial cooperation between Pakistan and India. The thesis for the benefits of cooperation is sound but at this juncture reading more into pro forma gestures seems like wishful thinking.
– Salman Bashir is a Pakistani diplomat who served as Foreign Secretary of Pakistan and as High Commissioner of Pakistan to India.