In considering the India-Pakistan relationship, it is important to bear in mind that the Pakistani army has always maintained a stranglehold on its approach towards India

by Vivek Katju

Over the past few weeks, signs have emerged, like the tips of an iceberg, of an ongoing contestation within Pakistan on the country’s India policy. These indications are important to make an assessment of how far current India-Pakistan endeavours to reduce bilateral tensions can really progress.

The February 25 joint statement to cease fire on the Line of Control (LOC) and “all other sectors” is holding. The term “all other sectors” relates to the International Border (IB) in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) on the Saltoro ridge. The Pakistan army uses the cover of firing along LOC as one of the means to push terrorists into J&K. It would, however, be wrong to assume that the ceasefire is indicative of a shift in its strategic doctrine relating to India — which, on one end of the spectrum, relies on the use of terror and, at the other end, on nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, the ceasefire is welcome relief to those who live along LOC and IB in J&K.

Significantly, external affairs minister S Jaishankar and his Pakistani counterpart Shah Mahmood Qureshi were in Abu Dhabi at the same time on official visits a few days ago. In an interview to a leading newspaper in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), on April 18, Qureshi mentioned the joint statement as a “positive development”. He further noted that Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi’s message to PM Imran Khan on Pakistan’s national day in March and India’s “dialling down” of rhetoric and its desire to see a peaceful Afghanistan and region were also “positive developments”. To Qureshi’s positives list can be added reports that India will give visas to the Pakistan cricket team for the ICC T20 World Cup scheduled to be played in India in October this year.

These “positive developments” cannot be taken, though, as indicative of the relationship turning a corner — due to the approach of Qureshi and some other important leaders of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party. The Pakistan government’s about-turn on cotton and sugar imports from India, despite great shortages of both commodities, is a sure manifestation of the pressure that these politicians were able to bring to bear in the cabinet even though the commerce ministry, which is headed by Imran Khan himself, had cleared the proposal.

It is inconceivable in view of the dynamics of Pakistan’s foreign and security policymaking that Qureshi and other politicians would openly oppose a move, which had PM Khan’s approval, and was in line with army chief Qamar Bajwa’s stated interest in improving ties with India — unless there was a coterie of senior generals behind them.

There can be little doubt that it is this support from the men in khaki which emboldened Qureshi, despite taking note of “positive developments”, to make scathing comments against India on UAE soil. He did so despite the full knowledge that the UAE is seeking to play, at minimum, a facilitation role to help India and Pakistan develop, what UAE’s ambassador to the United States recently called a “healthy functional relationship”.

Qureshi said that Pakistan’s greatest achievement in the last two years has been to defeat India’s design to diplomatically isolate Pakistan. He went on to assert that Pakistan was able to expose India’s smear campaign. These are not helpful words for the India-Pakistan process underway and Qureshi, an experienced politician who has served as the country’s foreign minister (though not continuously) for five years, would be aware of this fact.

In considering the India-Pakistan relationship, it is important to bear in mind that the Pakistani army has always maintained a stranglehold on its approach towards India. After Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s civilian leadership, with the exception of former PM Nawaz Sharif, has accepted the army’s key role in all matters pertaining to India. Certainly, Imran Khan, who the Pakistani opposition calls a “selected prime minister”, is in no position to challenge the army.

Thus, the future of the current initiatives will depend on whether Bajwa succeeds in fostering a consensus on the India policy among the generals. That is clearly absent today.

Retired senior Pakistani generals confided in Indian participants on the “track two” circuit, soon after Bajwa became the army chief, that he seriously wanted to normalise India-Pakistan ties. They also indirectly acknowledged that many of Bajwa’s colleagues were not on the same page with him on this issue. It would seem Bajwa and Khan realise that Pakistan needs to establish a “healthy functional relationship” with India to take it out of its economic and social morass. The recent Tehreek-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) agitation is one more pointer of the deep roots of religious rigidity in Jinnah’s creation.

The problem for Bajwa and Khan is that Pakistan went so overboard in its opposition to the constitutional changes in J&K that they will find it difficult to counter the charge of a sell-out, especially if that is the thinking of some senior generals. India should factor this point into its calculations as it proceeds on normalising ties with Pakistan. It should also be prepared for adventurous actions by recalcitrant Pakistani generals.

Vivek Katju is a retired diplomat who has extensively dealt with Pakistan