While India and Pakistan will not resolve their differences in the foreseeable future, Sabharwal believes a growing constituency in Pakistan understands the need for a stable relationship with India

US's recent overtures to Pakistan, seen in Washington's decision to support Islamabad's F-16 fighters, are part of a strategy to play on differences between India and Pakistan, says former Indian envoy to Pakistan Sharad Sabharwal in an exclusive interview to Mint. By pursuing a reset with Pakistan, America is also signalling its displeasure with India's policy on Ukraine. While India and Pakistan will not resolve their differences in the foreseeable future, Sabharwal believes a growing constituency in Pakistan understands the need for a stable relationship with India. Ambassador Sabharwal also speaks of his latest book, "India's Pakistan Conundrum".

How do we make sense of the state of play in the India-Pakistan relationship? And is it a state of affairs that we can live with?

It's a situation that we have seen on some occasions earlier. That is: no war, no peace. After Uri, there had been a sharp decline in the relationship and the ceasefire had almost unravelled on the Line of Control. That was restored in February 2021. Since then, there has been a degree of calm in the relationship. There was an expectation that some more steps may be taken like upgrading the relationship back to high commissioners level or the resumption of trade. However, this has not been possible largely because of the Pakistani side’s position on India’s abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir. Pakistan has painted itself into a very tight corner by asking India to withdraw this move. That's not going to happen and certainly not in response to a Pakistani demand. That's where things stand at the moment.

Your book, India’s Pakistan Conundrum, dives into why Pakistan is the way it is: its ethnic divisions, its failing economy and the dominance of the armed forces in national life. What are the three things Indians must understand about Pakistan’s history but don’t?

I think there is largely a good appreciation in India of Pakistan's history. Sometimes in our justified anger against Pakistan, we tend to exaggerate these things. For example, we in India broadly know how the civil-military equation in Pakistan came about. Indians know Pakistan’s ethnic faultlines, the dominance of Punjabis and religious extremism.

There are one or two things for which there has not been complete appreciation in India. The first is the reasons why Pakistan's economy keeps on breaking down. It's just a matter of satisfaction in India when Pakistan reaches this stage every now and then. What I point out in my book is that this is going to happen time and again, unless Pakistan changes its internal and external orientation. Internally, lots of privileges are given to certain groups while externally, Pakistan has an adversarial relationship with a much bigger and better endowed neighbour in India. On religious extremism, we focus more on terrorism against India. But, we need to realise that this is a phenomenon which has been encouraged actively in Pakistan, both by politicians serving their own ends and by the army.

There is much talk about a US-Pakistan reset. The F-16 sustainment package was one example of Washington and Islamabad working together. Should New Delhi be worried?

The US-Pakistan relationship has been largely transactional, whether it was the Cold War Alliance or Pakistan becoming a frontline state on the War on Terror after 9/11. The Americans needed Pakistan’s strategic location and Pakistan needed an external patron to underwrite economically and militarily, its ambitions vis a vis a much bigger neighbour like India.

This relationship came to an end when the Taliban took over in Afghanistan and the American left in complete state of disarray. The relationship was then blocked primarily because Imran Khan didn't agree to cooperate with their counterterrorism work in Afghanistan. That seems to be changing with the new government and so another transactional relationship seems to be developing. Americans have all along leveraged India-Pakistan differences to promote their relationship with their own interests in the region.

There are also increasing reports of military supplies, especially artillery shells, from Pakistan to Ukraine. The Americans would be very satisfied with that. There is also the regional angle. One part of this is China and the Americans keep on hoping they can wean Pakistan away from China. However, that's not going to happen. Lastly, it's also a signal to India in the context of India's position on Ukraine and buying more oil from Russia.

Your book does not pull any punches in its description of the challenges facing India and Pakistan. Yet, you see some silver linings emerging in Pakistan. Could you tell us what they are?

These are some positive developments that have taken place in Pakistan over recent years. These are still not strong enough to counter the entrenched interests, especially Pakistan’s security establishment, but we must take note of them. These trends must grow if Pakistan is ever to become a sensible state with which we can have a normal relationship.

First, we must realise that there is a large constituency in Pakistan which realises the value of a stable relationship with India. It's not because they've suddenly come to like India. They simply realise that it's good for their own interest. This constituency includes large segments of the business and industry, who tend to gain in open trade with India. It also includes politicians of major political parties who are capable of winning elections on their own without intervention of the army. It also includes members of the civil society including some sections of the academic community and the media. Second, the national discourse in Pakistan has become far more introspective today than ever before. During the 1990’s, there was too much self-righteousness in their national discourse. That is all gone now. Pakistanis suffered a terror backlash from the forces they reared. I was in the country and saw what was happening to Pakistan at that time.

There is also a very widespread realisation amongst the Pakistanis regarding the growing gap between India and Pakistan and that it is not going to be closed with old policies.

A prominent Pakistani diplomat once wrote a book about India-Pakistan ties and titled it “Why can’t we just be friends?". In your opinion, will that ever happen?

I don’t think it will happen in the foreseeable future. Positive steps can be taken. A ceasefire is already in place and has held since February 2021. At some stage, trade will resume and diplomatic relations may be upgraded back to High Commissioners level.

But we can’t have a completely normal relationship as long as Pakistan is a dysfunctional state. One side of the government tries to improve the relationship while the other side spikes it. My conclusion is that factors like Pakistan’s civil-military imbalance, which cause this dysfunction, are immutable in the foreseeable future. Miracles can always happen but a reasonable assessment would say that complete normalisation is ruled out for now. That doesn't mean we don't try to manage this relationship by stabilising it as much as we can.