Peace Process In The Region Is A Remote Possibility
Umer Farooq argues that Kartarpur Corridor might seem like a good public-relations coup, but it hardly provides any sound foundation for a successful regional foreign policy. Because the relations between political leadership of two countries have deteriorated to an intractable level.
Recent substantial changes in the domestic political configuration of both Pakistan and India have not in any way improved the chances of sustained and serious dialogue between the two countries to resolve outstanding disputes of political and military nature.
First political change took place in Islamabad when a pro-military political party—Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)—assumed power in Pakistan and anxiously started expressing the desire to normalize relations with India.
This was the desire it shared with its predecessor—PMLN govermment—which, in popular perception, was opposed tooth and nail, by Pakistani military establishment for the eagerness it displayed in pushing the normalization process.
Since April 2018, the Pakistani military has clearly shown the inclination to initiate a meaningful dialogue with New Delhi. There has been more than one public assertion from the military commanders of Pakistani Army that they want the process of dialogue to resume between two countries.
However, it is not clear as to why Pakistan Army has recently and publicly started pushing for talks with India. What brought the army to the position of taking a public position in this regard is not clear either.
Another change in political configuration took place in New Delhi, where forces of Hindu fundamentalism started to dominate the political and cultural scene, thus pushing the liberal segment of the society—which has been known for its soft stance towards Pakistan—into the background. In the wake of this change, it became difficult for anyone or any group to politically and publicly own the peace process with Pakistan. Traditionally, peace process in Indian society had been owned by Congress affiliated foreign policy and security experts and left leaning public intellectuals. Resultantly, there were less and less voices in Indian public space, which were advocating a peace process with Pakistan.
The problem with both these changes in configuration in New Delhi and Islamabad is that both seem to be the product of domestic political exigencies and in any case, don’t seem to be the outcome of any well-calculated strategic thinking or a prolonged political debate.
Indian society was in the grip of strong religious currents before these currents brought Bharatia Janta Party (BJP) to power in New Delhi. Just before that, two events shaped Indian public opinion, especially in the Northern part of the country.
First Kargil Conflict helped spread the feeling that Pakistan had betrayed the confidence and trusts Indian leadership had bestowed on Pakistani leaders. Second, Mumbai terror attacks of 2008 clearly established the “fact” for Indian public opinion that Pakistan was the hotbed of terrorism and that it was hell bent on destroying the civil life in India. These two factors mobilized Indian public opinion against and helped the extremist forces in Indian politics to portray talks with India as a waste of time.
The overwhelming electoral victory of Hindu extremists in Indian elections pushed liberals into a tight corner in Indian society. Thus in public space in India only those voices which advocated extremist position against Pakistan remained vocal and visible. In the words of a senior Indian journalist, in the wake of Mumbai attacks nobody seemed to be interested in India in advocating any type of normalization process with Pakistan.
Hence, when successive Pakistani foreign ministers repeatedly and persistently appealed New Delhi for resumption of talks in the wake of Mumbai attacks, their entreaties fell on deaf ears. Pakistan’s voices of peace failed to find any echoes in the corridors of power or intellectual circles in New Delhi. Some of Indian officials who in fact did talk about talks, wanted it to remain focused on terrorism. Even in this regards they were not at all enthusiastic.
Pakistan had its own major political problems in the wake of 2013 parliamentary elections, when one of the political party, PTI, refused to first accept the results of the elections and then took up the alleged corruptions in the ranks of ruling PMLN as a plea to advocate their ouster. The rounds of agitations Pakistan witnessed resulted in persistent political instability and a spate of allegations and counter allegation between government and opposition.
One can judge the level of instability caused by this environment of animosity by the fact that the incumbent Prime Minister was accused of being a RAW agent by social media accounts/activists with dubious links with country’s military and intelligence establishments.
The subsequent parliamentary elections were alleged to be massively rigged and the new opposition refused to accept the results. But something unusual happened in the months preceding the general elections—Chief of the Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa laid the offer of peace talks with India.
“It is our sincere belief that the route to peaceful resolution of Pak-India disputes – including the core issue of Kashmir – runs through comprehensive and meaningful dialogue,” he said, while addressing the passing out parade ceremony of Pakistan Military Academy (PMA) cadets in Kakul in April 2018.
This was most unusual—only months ago the military was in confrontation mode with former PM Nawaz Sharif who appeared too anxious to start a formal peace process with India just at the start of his third tenure. Many political commentators were of the opinion that PMLN government aimed to improve relations with India.
In early 2016, the military picked up information that the number of Indian visitors to Islamabad who had direct access to then PM Nawaz Sharif or officials close to him have increased. The military leadership reportedly mentioned this in a meeting with the prime minister. This was the time when Nawaz Sharif was showing eagerness to normalize relations with India. This made the civil-military relations very tense.
In such an environment, the army chief making a move to start a negotiation process with India came as a surprise to many. Nobody was sure why this was happening, but for many commentators this was not coming out of the blue as General Bajwa was not the only commander of Pakistan army who talked in conciliatory terms about India.
But it represented change from two perspective, a) Army had a confrontation with the outgoing PMLN government on relations with India with Army taking a hardline stance over PMLN’s eagerness to normalize relations. Now Army chief was himself talking peace, b) the previous Army chiefs, in post-Musharraf period, showed great reluctance to normalize relations with India especially in the light of Indian involvement in fomenting trouble in Balochistan. General Bajwa’s statement was a break from previous Army chief’s policies as well.
What was going on inside General Bajwa’s head? Everybody was clueless about it as General Bajwa’s statement was not preceded by any debate in the public domain over relations with India, which, in other words, means that we can’t be sure what exactly Bajwa meant by “comprehensive and meaningful dialogue”. Does it mean revival of Composite Dialogue process? Was Bajwa groping in the dark? Did he receive any signal or assurance from any member country of the international community before making this offer of peace talks to India? There was no chance of arriving any at domestic political consensus regarding talks with India as there existed great acrimony between military leadership and one of the major political leaders, Nawaz Sharif, whose ouster from power was generally attributed to his soft stance on relations with India.
The change in political configuration, however, did take place in Islamabad—the 2018 parliamentary elections brought a highly pro-military government into power in Pakistan with new Prime Minister, Imran Khan showing as much eagerness to normal relations with India was his predecessor. In fact, every leader in post-Musharraf period reached the same conclusion regarding regional security and foreign policy—that Pakistan cannot resolve its domestic problems without reaching some kind of resolution of disputes with India.
This time, however, the military command in Pakistan was openly talking about initiating a peace process in the region.
But these two changes in the political configurations—one in New Delhi and the other in Islamabad—didn’t improve the chances for resumption of normalization process between Pakistan and India. Pakistan was willing and anxious to hold a dialogue, though it has hardly done any homework in this regards—no public debate or any discussion among the power elite took place apparently. Pakistan government and military establishment don’t seem to have any plan or a strategy as to how they would proceed on the path of normalization with India, especially when Kashmir is boiling once again. Kartarpur Corridor might seem like a good public relations coup, but it hardly provides any sound foundation for a successful regional foreign policy.
The change in configuration in New Delhi has made the prospects of talks even more remote—India’s new fundamentalist Hindu government seems to develop an inflated ego after its regional and international stature has been accepted by world powers including US and to some extent by China as well. They now think that they can simply ignore a weak regional neighbor like Pakistan. They don’t seem to feel the pressure from international community to resolve its outstanding problems with Pakistan.
The most worrying aspect of these relations is the fact that atmospherics between political leadership of two countries have deteriorated to an intractable level and both PMs Imran Khan and Narendra Modi are not on talking terms anymore, it seems.
Umer Farooq is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist. He writes on security, foreign policy and domestic political issues.