The Big Story: Cottoned On

Here are three long-standing bits of conventional wisdom regarding the India-Pakistan dispute and any potential peace process:

  • We’re more likely to see a deal when India is being run by a right-wing, i.e. Bhartiya Janata Party leader – because they would be less susceptible to ‘weak-on-national security’ attacks
  • India won’t accept any third-party intervention, and will vehemently push back against any suggestion of mediation
  • There’s no point for New Delhi in engaging just with Pakistan’s civilian leaders. The Pakistan Army holds all the cards. If its top brass can be convinced, the civilian leadership won’t get in the way

Each of these has plenty of truth to them, yet over the years there have been plenty of reasons to prise apart some of the underlying assumptions behind them.

It is true, for example, that the decades-old dispute appeared to come close to some semblance of a resolution under former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the country’s first BJP prime minister. But that effort also carried on under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and the relative progress at the time may have had as much to do with who was on the other side of the table, Pakistan Army chief-turned-dictator-President Pervez Musharraf.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tenure began with many repeating the expectation that a BJP leader was better poised to push for a peace deal. Indeed, Modi’s unannounced and unplanned visit to Lahore for former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s grand-daughter’s wedding in 2015 – the first visit of an Indian prime minister to Pakistan since Vajpayee in 1999 – seemed to set the table for further d├ętente.

Instead, what followed appeared to a bizarre foreign policy roller-coaster that included Pakistan-supported militant attacks on military bases in India, New Delhi permitting a Pakistani team including a member of the Inter-Services Intelligence to visit as part of the investigations, 2016’s ‘surgical strikes’ by India along the Line of Control, External Affairs Minister-level meetings being confirmed and cancelled a week apart and the Pulwama-Balakot series of incidents that saw the two countries on the brink of war.

Over the last few weeks, with those memories and Pakistan’s indignation over Modi’s decision to bifurcate and downgrade Jammu and Kashmir from a state into a union territory having receded, the expectation that the India-Pakistan peace process can get back on track has once again been revived. But we’ll come to the latest developments in a moment. The second axiom is one of those standard divergences between Indian and Pakistani positions. Islamabad – as the weaker power in this equation – has repeatedly called for a third-party mediated process. New Delhi has been firm in its stance that the dispute is a purely bilateral matter for decades now.

On March 21, Bloomberg reported that the United Arab Emirates had “brokered” talks between India and Pakistan that led to the unexpected February joint statement between the Director Generals of Military Operations of both countries re-committing to the ceasefire at the Line of Control. The report was met with silence from not just the UAE but also Pakistan and India’s Ministry of External Affairs. While analysts are quite certain that the level of Emirati intervention would at most have been to facilitate dialogue between the two countries – who had withdrawn their high commissioners in 2019 – the lack of response to is a marked contrast from India’s outright rejection of former US President Donald Trump’s offer to mediate in 2020.

Aside from the fascinating evolution in ties between India, Pakistan and the Gulf countries over the last decade – which could fill up a whole other piece – it also reflects New Delhi’s relative confidence in allowing the UAE to project its own narrative, even if doesn’t quite tally precisely with the Indian one.

And finally, the dictum that the Pakistan Army offers single-window clearance for peace initiatives.

The most recent rapprochement, at least from the view of the public, began with a statement from Pakistan Army Chief Qamar Bajwa in February, saying “it is time to extend a hand of peace in all directions”. This was followed up in March with another Bajwa speech, this time at the first Islamabad Security Dialogue:

“Stable Indo-Pak relation is a key to unlock the untapped potential of South and Central Asia by ensuring connectivity between East and West Asia. This potential however, has forever remained hostage to disputes and issues between two nuclear neighbours. Kashmir dispute is obviously at the head of this problem. It is important to understand that without the resolution of Kashmir dispute through peaceful means, process of sub-continental rapprochement will always remain susceptible to derailment due to politically motivated bellicosity. However, we feel that it is time to bury the past and move forward. But for resumption of peace process or meaningful dialogue, our neighbour will have to create conducive environment, particularly in Indian Occupied Kashmir.”

That may not sound like a ringing endorsement but for anyone who follows India-Pakistan ties closely, Bajwa’s line on burying the past and his failure to bring up Article 370 or India’s 2019 moves clearly signalled a softening stance. It wasn’t just rhetoric either. Indian Army Chief MM Naravane said in March that the ceasefire had actually held. “I am glad to inform that in the whole month of March, we have not had a single shot fired at the Line of Control barring an odd incident,” Naravane said. “It is for the first time in about five or six years that the LoC has been silent. That really bodes well for the future.”

Other dominoes seemed ready to fall quite quickly. Modi wrote to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan to extend greetings on Pakistan’s National Day, saying India desires “cordial relations” with its neighbour.

Khan replied, with a similar message.

Further reporting revealed a back-channel between Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Khan’s Special Assistant on National Security Division and Strategic Policy Planning Moeed Yusuf. Islamabad’s relative restraint during India’s military tensions with China over the past year offered another indication of the potential thaw in ties.

Many remained cautious still, if not outright cynical. The India-Pakistan relationship has tended tumble through the same cycle every few years, only to return to a hostile status quo.

“For those asking why the ceasefire and subsequent events happened right now, the answers lie more in domestic reasons than international,” said Aparna Pande, director for the Initiative on the Future of India and South Asia at the Hudson Institute, to the Print. “Pakistan is under considerable pressure. The civilian government is weak and not interested in foreign policy. As the institution that in effect has dictated Pakistan’s foreign and domestic politics, the Army feels there is too much pressure on the country and that there is a need to alleviate that pressure.”

Then came the harder pivot: Could military softening translate into better trade ties?

India had, after the Pulwama attack in 2019, put a 200% customs duty on goods from Pakistan. In return, after the August 2019 changes to Jammu and Kashmir’s status, Pakistan suspended bilateral trade. In March, Pakistan’s Finance Minister Hammad Azhar said that the government, struggling to handle high inflation and local shortages, had decided to lift its ban on the import of cotton and sugar from India.

What followed was somewhat farcical. Pakistan’s Economic Coordination Committee cleared the proposal to import cotton and sugar from India, which had been forwarded to it by the Commerce Ministry, which is headed by Imran Khan, who holds the portfolio. It was then forwarded to the Cabinet for what should have been a straightforward endorsement. Instead, the Cabinet – headed, naturally, by Imran Khan – shot it down. Khan then held a meeting to review bilateral ties, in which he concluded that Pakistan will not trade with India “till India reviews the steps it took on August 5, 2019” referring to the downgrading and bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir.

Rezaul H Laskar reported on the divisions within Imran Khan’s government that led to this flip-flop:

“According to the buzz in Islamabad, much of this debate was spurred by hawkish elements in the Imran Khan government, including interior minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed and foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi…

According to the insiders, even Qureshi wasn’t in the loop on the contacts that led to the ceasefire announcement in February and this was reflected in his hawkish speech at the Islamabad Security Dialogue last month. In marked contrast, Bajwa spoke at the same event about the need to “bury the past and move forward.”

Here is Moeed Yusuf struggling to explain Khan’s U-turn:

One can only imagine the thoughts of Pakistan Finance Minister Hammad Azhar, who was in his very first day on the job. More importantly, it appears evident that the pushback here was at least partly political, and not military. As Praveen Swami writes:

“Ever since February, when India and Pakistan reinstated the 2003 Line of Control ceasefire agreement, speculation has mounted on what the next-steps in the peace process might be: Visas, cricket, Siachen, even, who knows, open borders in Kashmir? The optimism derives from the belief among many Indian and Western analysts that Generals like Pakistan’s army chief, Qamar Javed Bajwa, can do what politicians like Zardari or Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif could not.

Last week, the world was treated to a public performance illustrating just how wrong that assumption is…

The volte-face tells us that avoiding war isn’t quite the same thing as making peace. Inside Pakistan’s Army-dominated strategic establishment, there are deep divisions on the way forward, and what price the country ought be willing to pay for peace.”

For the moment the decision has only been deferred, and Pakistan’s textile manufacturers have complained about the U-turn, warning of its downstream impact on exports. The thaw may well continue. But the events are a reminder of how delicate the entire process is going to be and how none of the things analysts take for granted when it comes to India-Pakistan relations will necessarily hold true.