In a recent address, Bilawal Bhutto, the Pakistani foreign minister, questioned diplomatic dis-engagement with India. He stated, “We have practically cut off all engagement (with India). Does it serve our objective?” The foreign office was quick to comment that his statement had been quoted out of context and Pakistan’s policy towards India remains unchanged. Sometime back, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, while speaking to the Turkish media stated, “we are cognisant of the economic dividends which can be accrued from a healthy trade activity with India.”
Simultaneously media reports mention that backchannel dialogue, also termed Track II or Track III diplomacy, is on between India and Pakistan, aimed at breaking the impasse. There has been no formal dialogue since Prime Minister Modi visited Nawaz Sharif in Lahore in 2015. Relations further deteriorated after India withdrew Article 370 in Kashmir, in August 2019. The deterioration in diplomatic ties is such that High Commissioners have been withdrawn, and strength reduced in missions. It was a backchannel dialogue which led to the two nations simultaneously announcing a ceasefire along the LOC in February 2021, which continues to hold.
Such diplomacy is also intended at finding common ground so that both Modi and Shehbaz Sharif, expected to be present at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit, scheduled in Tashkent in mid-July, could formally break the impasse. Such an opportunity may not be forthcoming thereafter. Third-party mediation has been ruled out by India and the atmosphere does not support bilateral visits.
Despite everything, Pakistan is a nuclear-powered neighbour aligned with China, and also a historical adversary fuelling unrest in Kashmir. Hence, it will remain on the Indian radar. Resolution of disputes through dialogue will benefit both nations. In the present environment, such a thought is utopian.
India desires talks sans support to terrorist groups by Pakistan and judicial action against those responsible for terrorist strikes in India. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar recently commented, “We will not be brought to talk using the instrument of terrorism.” Pakistan, had till 2019, desired talks while spurning the Indian conditions and with a rider to include the Hurriyat as official representatives of the Kashmiri population. Further, the Pakistani army made dialogue redundant with terrorist strikes. Hence, talks always stalled.
After the abrogation of Article 370 and with the Hurriyat having been rendered ineffective, Pakistan’s conditions have changed. It has demanded the reinstatement of Article 370 as an essential prelude and dropped its demand to include the Hurriyat while denying support to terrorism. Imran Khan placed these conditions and with an unstable Shehbaz in the chair, it is unlikely anything will change. Pakistan unites on only two
issues, an anti-India or anti-US sentiment. Any government displaying a pro/neutral India policy could, as Nawaz Sharif did, face political backlash. Currently, Imran accuses Shehbaz of the same.
Pakistan is aware that relations with India are essential for its sur- vival, whether it be the release of water as per the Indus Water Treaty, supply of cotton for its garment industry, medicines, sugar and even wheat to make up its shortfall. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor can only succeed if utilized by India. The Pakistani business community has been harping on opening trade with India, but governments hesitate, solely to display an anti-India image.
Pakistan is currently importing 2 million tonnes of wheat from Russia, though it has yet to determine a payment mechanism. Internal sale prices can never be raised, further taxing its economy. Last year Pakistan was compelled to import sugar from global markets, solely because Imran
refused to budge from his Article 370 demand. Indian medical products are sent to Pakistan via the Middle East, adding to the cost. India exports wheat and sugar across the world, hence, not supplying to Pakistan does not impact its sales. Post the Ukraine crisis, the world is banking on Indian wheat.
Diplomatically, Pakistan is low on the Indian engagement list. India considers it an irritant such that it refuses to comment on Pakistan’s internal constitutional crises. Balakote has ensured Pakistan limits its terrorist activities. India’s global stature has led to it looking beyond Pakistan and South Asia, though it continues to support neighbours in need. The financial and logistic support provided to Sri Lanka is a case in point.
The scenario for Pakistan is vastly different. It is struggling to avoid falling into a debt trap, surviving on loans and doles, from the IMF, China and West Asia. China, its staunchest
ally, exploits it when most needed. China has, after considerable discussion, agreed to refinance Pakistan with $2.3 Billion, with multiple riders. Further, since the takeover of Kabul by the Taliban and the withdrawal of the US, Pakistan’s global importance as a frontline state has receded. Pro-Taliban comments by its politicians, including Imran Khan and Qureshi, have led to the world considering Pakistan as a state that supports terrorists. Pakistan has nothing to offer the world but everything to take.
In such a bleak scenario, Pakistan cannot look beyond its nose. It has no global voice and little ability to influence the region. Thus, it is compelled to comment on India’s internal matters including Kashmir, minorities, religious statements and political decisions, all of which the Indian government ignores. However, Pakistan’s Kashmir fixation and support for terrorism remain a stumbling block in bilateral ties. With terrorism failing, Pakistan has shifted focus to the targeted killing of innocents, narco-terrorism and inciting a few disgruntled elements still supporting Khalistan. This has further vitiated the atmosphere.
If the ongoing diplomacy has to achieve a breakthrough, one side would have to bend. For India, Article 370 is a no-discussion zone, while for Pakistan it is stopping terrorism in Kashmir. India could offer statehood for J and K post elections, while Pakistan could re-commence Mumbai terrorist attack trials. Alternatively, both could send positive messages. One option is reappointing high commissioners and Pakistan request- ing India for a supply of wheat or sugar.
An added dilemma facing the Modi government is the instability of Shehbaz. India is hesitant to invest time with a Pakistani PM who could be sidelined any day. Further, talks may yield no outcome since Shehbaz does not possess the political power to push decisions in a fractured government. Hence, in all likelihood, Tashkent will be another missed opportunity.
(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army.)