Don’t hold out hope for better ties with Pakistan
India-Pak relationship is minimally stable. But the political flux in Pak, the troubles of the army and terrorist attacks in Jammu and Kashmir do not bode well
The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s (SCO’s) foreign ministers’ meeting ended in Goa on exactly the note that all well prepared major international conferences should — no surprises and no setbacks, as far as the substantive agenda of the meeting was concerned. Since the SCO excludes the raising of bilateral issues, this platform was not available for Pakistan to attempt to internationalise Kashmir, its stated intent in all international forums. In the circumstances, there appeared no major hurdles in advancing the agenda of this meeting or in viewing it as a success in terms of preparing the ground for the SCO summit later this year in New Delhi.
To the outside world, questions surrounding the SCO have a bearing on the situation in Europe, in particular the war in Ukraine, and on the even larger issue of the United States (US)-China rivalry. To some in India, the main point of interest was the bilateral interface with China, given the ongoing situation on the Line of Actual Control. But for most, and certainly it received the most attention, was the India-Pakistan bilateral interface, or the absence of it. This was, after all, the first visit by a Pakistani foreign minister to India in over a decade. To some, it appeared that the fact that Bilawal Bhutto Zardari attended the meeting in person rather than opt for a virtual presence meant something, at least the hint of a thaw.
The more plausible explanation, however, behind the Pakistani minister’s presence, was that, despite some internal criticism, not attending the meet would have meant Pakistan choosing to isolate itself from the SCO because of the India factor. Certainly, his presence in Goa underlined the importance India and Pakistan place on their SCO membership. In any case, the overall context of the India-Pakistan relationship and the extent of domestic confusion in Pakistan ruled out the possibility of any meaningful bilateral engagement.
The terror attack and fatalities in Poonch two weeks earlier, and another major attack in Rajouri even as the SCO meeting was concluding, framed the India-Pakistan interface more directly and brutally. While the substance of the SCO meeting proceeded smoothly, it was at its conclusion that India-Pakistan issues came to fore. This took the form of polemical and strongly provocative media statements from the Pakistan foreign minister and a correspondingly robust response from the Indian external affairs minister. Such exchanges over terrorism or Kashmir are staples of the India-Pakistan conversation and have recurred several times in the past. Nevertheless, in the present situation, they are not without significance.
Does the exchange leave the India-Pakistan relationship in even worse shape than it was before Bhutto Zardari landed in Goa? Notwithstanding the occasional high-decibel rhetoric and personal attacks on senior government figures in India, the relationship has been minimally stable since early 2021 and the reaffirmation of the ceasefire by both sides. The stability is, however, at a very low plateau — no bilateral contacts, a downgraded diplomatic representation and a closure of trade. It has been, therefore, a fragile, even brittle, stability.
It is nevertheless significant because the ceasefire has endured, despite a year-long period of serious internal political turmoil and severe economic stress in Pakistan. No early closure appears evident in Pakistan’s flux, with the judiciary now an equal player in the Imran Khan vs Nawaz Sharif contest. Will there be an election in the near future, or could it be delayed to the end of the year? How will a sputtering economy deal with this political chaos? These are questions that all of Pakistan debates daily, without any clear consensus or answer.
Over the past year, the Pakistan army has gone through a messy and bruising transition at its highest echelons alongside an intense civil-military contestation. Its image today is more dented than at any time in the past decade-and-a-half. While the possibility of serious dissension within the army command structure can be discounted, the fact remains that we have heard more about the army’s internal squabbles and jostling for top jobs in the past few months than at any time in the recent past. The former chief of army staff — General Qamar Javed Bajwa — stands diminished, at least in public narratives, as someone who got involved in political dogfights not as an impartial and ultimate power centre, but as someone advancing his personal interests. The charge is that he played both sides of the political divide with an eye to securing a further tenure extension for himself. Alongside all this, he, not unexpectedly, is also being castigated for being soft and defeatist on India; and here, the actual facts are less important, even immaterial, than perceptions. In these circumstances, a new (since the end of November 2022) army chief is in place and has to make his own impact on the chain of command. The heightened rhetoric and the recent terrorist attacks do not bode well for the months ahead.
TCA Raghavan is a former high commissioner to Pakistan
The views expressed are personal