Such is the dismal state of relations between India and Pakistan that any development with the slightest hint of positivity results in unwarranted expectations. Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s recent remarks on India-Pakistan relations to the UAE’s Al Arabiya news channel are an example.
In an interview to Al Arabiya, Sharif said that three wars with India have brought more misery, poverty and unemployment to people; the country had learnt its lessons and wanted to live in peace with India, provided the genuine problems between the two countries were resolved. He called for serious and sincere talks to resolve burning issues like Kashmir. He alleged “flagrant human rights violations” in Kashmir and persecution of minorities in India and called upon Delhi to put an end to such actions to give a message to the world that it was ready for meaningful talks. Sharif said that he had taken up this issue with the UAE president during his recent visit. Since the UAE has good relations with India, its president could play a very important role in bringing the two countries to the talking table, he said.
On the face of it, the above remarks call for peace. In essence, however, they are of a piece with past statements from Pakistan’s top leadership concerning the need to avoid a war, while flaunting the nuclear arsenal. Its talk of building peace has always been conditional on the resolution of the Kashmir issue. Even while it has harped on a resolution to the Kashmir issue, it has shown neither the courage nor the pragmatism to do so. A subsequent clarification issued by the prime minister’s office reinforced the conditionality of his remarks by stating that talks could take place only after “India has reversed its illegal action of August 5, 2019” and the settlement of “the Kashmir dispute must be in accordance with the UN resolutions and aspirations of the people of Jammu and Kashmir.”
Pakistan is currently beset with a perilous economic situation. The growing threat of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) terror and a bitter political divide has made governance nearly impossible. While the commentary in Pakistan on the ways and means to stabilise the economy examines structural shortcomings that have remained unaddressed over the years, it mostly sidesteps the elephant in the room – Pakistan’s adversarial posture towards India that imposes an unbearable burden on its much smaller economy. It is now one-tenth of the Indian economy and the gap continues to grow. Pakistan’s oft-repeated emphasis on geoeconomics over the last two years remains a pious wish and makes little sense in the absence of trade and transit relations with India. Not having an effective response to India’s move to withdraw the special status of Jammu and Kashmir and split it into two Union Territories, the then Imran Khan government boxed Pakistan into a corner by suspending bilateral trade. This has harmed the Pakistani economy more than it has hurt India.
In April 2021, the Imran Khan government had to quickly reverse a decision to allow the import of some badly needed items from India. The Shehbaz Sharif government has also not dared to open trade in spite of demand from segments of trade and industry in Pakistan. It did not allow the import of vegetables from India in the face of acute shortage in Pakistan due to the devastating floods last year. It has incurred the wrath of people because of some stringent measures that it has had to put in place to stabilise the economy — a goal that it has failed to achieve.
Sharif faces tough electoral battles later this year against Imran Khan, who has gained in popularity since his ouster from power. The legislative assembly of the all-important Punjab province has been dissolved and elections have to be held within 90 days as per the constitution. Elections to the federal legislature are also scheduled for this year. This leaves the government with little room for manoeuvre vis-a-vis India. Therefore, it is not surprising that Sharif’s peace offer, made with an eye on Pakistan’s growing economic, and other, compulsions was overloaded with caveats to the point of rendering it largely hollow. If he seeks a face-saver, he is asking for too much with a weaker hand.
Two Pakistani journalists, including the noted TV anchor Hamid Mir, have claimed to have been told by the former army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa that as a result of back-channel talks with India, it was decided that the Indian prime minister would pay a visit to Pakistan in April 2021, during the course of which he would also visit the Hinglaj Mata temple in the Lasbela district of Balochistan. They further claim that the two sides had agreed to freeze the Kashmir issue for 20 years and also open trade. However, the Imran Khan government failed to carry these understandings forward. In view of both Imran Khan and Bajwa washing their dirty linen in public to discredit each other, the above claims attributed to Bajwa may be exaggerated. However, it has been widely reported that the restoration of the LoC ceasefire in February 2021 — which has held so far — was the result of behind-the-scenes talks, facilitated by the UAE, between the intelligence agencies of the two countries. If an attempt was made subsequently to build upon the ceasefire, it was the right thing to do.
Pakistan needed a calmer relationship with India because of its growing internal problems and India needed a less volatile western border to face up to the Chinese challenge. Those imperatives remain unchanged. It is too early to know the mind of the new army leadership of Pakistan, but they may find it difficult to ramp up the tension with India at this juncture due to internal preoccupations. Saner voices in Pakistan are increasingly calling for a recalibration of the policy towards India. However, the current political scenario in Pakistan renders any positive steps in the bilateral relationship unlikely for the time being. Possibilities in this regard may open up once Pakistan is done with its elections.
The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan