India and Pakistan could be looking to re-engage after the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections, with a slew of measures hinting that tensions between the two sides may have eased a bit.
Though resumption of the dialogue process is not in sight, normalisation of ties could well be, say experts, as the Indian government sifts through signals from across the border for terms of a possible re-engagement.
India said on Friday it had accepted an invitation to a meeting of the Indus Water Commissioners in Lahore, two days after the regional bloc, Saarc, got a new secretary general from Pakistan, veteran diplomat Amjad Hussain Sial.
“Now that the Uttar Pradesh elections are almost over, Modi is returning to business to usual with Pakistan by reversing himself on issues that he has politically milked dry,” said a strategic affairs expert.
New Delhi had earlier cited procedural issues to object to Sial’s appointment. Once the differences were sorted out, Pakistan got its first Saarc secretary general since 1998.
The two countries are also taking a lenient view on the issue of prisoners, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif are expected to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit in Astana in June.
On its part, India toned down its aggression on the Indus Waters Treaty and agreed to the meeting of the Indus Waters Commissioners in March. The government has taken the view that the commissioners “discuss technical issues” and their work should be seen separately and cannot “amount to talks” between governments.
The decisiveness with which the government handled Pakistan, including the “surgical strike” on terrorist camps along the LoC after the attack on an army camp at Uri last September, was a major election plank for the BJP in Uttar Pradesh. The BJP’s Pakistan policy is very much part of the domestic political narrative. And the party can ill afford a move on normalising ties with Pakistan that could be seen as a counter to this narrative.
Strategic affairs expert Brahma Chellaney told Hindustan Times: “Now that the Uttar Pradesh elections are almost over, Modi is returning to business to usual with Pakistan by reversing himself on issues that he has politically milked dry.”
In Islamabad, senior Foreign Office officials said Pakistan will welcome any overture from India for resuming peace talks.
Asked about a possible thaw from the Indian side, a senior official, who asked not to be named, said Islamabad was expecting some movement from India following the clamp down on Jamaat-ud-Dawah (JuD) chief Hafiz Saeed and the announcement of a new military operation against militant organisations across the country, including Punjab province.
“India has been pressing for action against the JuD and also against other entities that are based on our soil and this has started,” the official told Hindustan Times.
Saeed, the founder of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, was placed under house arrest on January 30. After a wave of terror attacks across Pakistan last month, the army launched a crackdown on militant groups.
Former Pakistani diplomat and foreign affairs analyst Zafar Hilaly too said any movement from India would be well received in Islamabad, where the Foreign Office is weighing its options in its relations with the US. “There is little clarity on relations with the Donald Trump government. Given this, Pakistan will be open to better relations with India as a stepping stone to a better image internationally,” he said.
Hilaly’s views were shared by some Indian experts.
The Indus Waters Commissioners have met 112 times since 1960, but the Narendra Modi government resorted to an unprecedented review of the Indus Waters Treaty to make full use of water that legally belongs to India and raised the rhetoric that “blood and water” cannot flow together to protest against cross-border terrorism.
India is currently evaluating the balance between the civilian government and the military under the new Pakistan Army chief, Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, and Pakistan’s actions on terrorism. Indian officials refused to comment on a definite pattern emerging from these developments but experts had a different take.
“These are independent developments and there is no need to see a common thread,” said a government source.
Former foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh saw the latest developments in a more nuanced manner. “Historically, India-Pakistan relations swing from one end to another. It has been the same under Modi – from his friendship with Nawaz Sharif to the surgical strike on terrorists.”
He noted that the number of incidents on the Line of Control had fallen but said India should wait to ascertain whether infiltration comes down during summer. “India is evaluating signals from Pakistan and a host of measures indicate the two sides are looking at more steps to normalise ties,” he said.
But another Pakistani analyst warned little would come of any thaw between India and Pakistan “as the fundamentals remain unchanged”. He said Pakistan’s military high command is not in favour of any improvement at this stage and that is why Islamabad is on the back foot.