Over the past couple of months, both India and Pakistan have been trying to lower the temperatures through some good gestures and reconciliatory statements, while both sides have reiterated their commitment to amicably resolve the issue of harassment of diplomats. India and Pakistan have also agreed to some humanitarian gestures with regard to prisoners languishing, on both sides, in jails.
There have also been indicators that the two neighbors are keen to revive economic ties and give a boost to bilateral trade, which is way below potential.
In the month of March, Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan, Ajay Bisaria, while addressing the Lahore Chamber of Commerce and Industry, spoke about the need for greater bilateral trade:
We should not talk about negative and positive lists rather we should work on the windows of opportunities. At present, over $5 billion trade is being done through third country but after removal of non-tariff barriers, liberalisation of visa and normalisation of mutual relations, the two-way trade could touch a high $30 billion.
Bisaria, while addressing the Employers Federation of Pakistan and the South Asian Forum of Employers, reiterated the need to increase the level of trade, and also said that if South Korea and North Korea could work towards resolving their serious differences, there is no reason why India and Pakistan could not.
Interestingly, in the month of April, Pakistan High Commissioner to India, Sohail Mahmood, met with the Chief Minister of Punjab (India), Captain Amarinder Singh, and discussed possible areas where both countries can cooperate. Not only was there an emphasis on reviving people-to-people contact between the two Punjab’s, but also to give a boost to trade through the Wagah-Attari land route. In the two phases (2004-2007 and then 2011-2014), when India and Pakistan made headway in terms of connectivity and economic linkages, the two Punjab’s played a pivotal role. The area of Punjab, of course, was split by the British Partition of 1947.
Change in mindset of Pakistan Army and RUSI report
What is interesting is a commentary, authored by Kamal Alam, published by premier British think-tank RUSI (Royal United Services Institution), which emphatically argues that there is a paradigm shift in the mindset of the Pakistani military, under the leadership of current Chief of Army Staff, Qamar Ahmed Bajwa, and a genuine realization for the need to move away from a zero-sum approach.
Alam’s commentary refers to an address by Bajwa last year, where he made a case for India being part of the $60 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The Pakistan army chief stated:
The Pakistan army is now no more insecure and feels confident of its future and that he welcomes Indian participation in Pakistan’s flagship infrastructure project, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Alam, to strengthen his argument, also points to some other instances, such as Bajwa’s speech at the passing-out parade of cadets at the Pakistan Military Academy in Kakul, where the Pakistan Army Chief referred to the necessity of dialogue between both countries, and an invite to the Indian Military attache, Sanjay Vishwasrao, and other senior diplomats posted at the Indian High Commission, for the military parade to mark Pakistan’s National Day. The diplomats attended the parade alongside Vishwasrao.
Another interesting development flagged by Alam is the military drill (conducted under the umbrella of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) in September 2018, where both India and Pakistan along with other member nations will participate.
Alam’s commentary has quoted a number of other high level members of the Pakistan army who have spoken in favor of mending ties, and also argues that a change in the Pakistan army’s mindset has been visible since 2013.
In December 2016, Pakistan’s Southern Command Lt General, Amir Riaz, while speaking at an awards distribution ceremony at Balochistan FC Headquarters, invited India to join CPEC and ‘share the fruits of future development by shelving the anti-Pakistan activities and subversion.’ Riaz, as Director General of Military Operations in 2013, had met his counterpart at Wagah to reduce tensions across the Line of Control.
According to Alam, Major General Ahmed Hayat, the Director-General-Analysis of the Inter-Services-Intelligence for Pakistan, had authored, in 2013, what was dubbed as the India Plan. While agreeing that engagement and not conflict was the answer, the report sought to identify the appropriate time to reach out to India from a position of strength.
Points of contention moving forward
While Alam’s report has generated a lot of interest, a few facts need to be borne.
First, the recent meeting between Modi and Xi, where China, without making a mention of Pakistan, committed to flag terrorism as a key concern. In recent months, China has given some indicators that it may be willing to re-think its approach towards terrorism emanating from Pakistan. Pakistan is now likely to be put on the watchlist of an international financial watchdog, Financial Action Task Force (FATF). Beijing was initially opposed to this move, but relented after India lent its support to Beijing for the Vice Presidency of FATF.
China has of course been pitching for a better relationship between New Delhi and Islamabad for some time, keeping in mind its own economic interests, and has even asked New Delhi to be part of CPEC. New Delhi has been steadfast in its opposition to China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) Initiative, given the fact that CPEC passes through disputed territory, but with the changing dynamics in the New Delhi-Beijing relationship, it is likely that Bajwa and the upper echelons of India’s diplomatic corps are making the right noises to look good to the international community, especially China.
Second, the incumbent PML-N civilian government in Pakistan, which has been completely overwhelmed in the past two years with the weakening of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The fall of Sharif began with the joint Tahir Ul Qadri-Imran Khan protests (backed by the Pakistan army) in 2014, and ever since the Panama Case leaks in April 2016, things have spiraled downhill for Sharif. In July 2017, Nawaz Sharif was disqualified by the Supreme Court from holding any public office, and had to resign as Prime Minister of Pakistan. In April 2018, he was disqualified from holding any position for life.
Sharif, who has on more than one occasion dubbed political rival and former cricket star Imran Khan, Chairman of Pakistan-Tehreek-E-Insaaf (PTI) as ‘laadla’ (favorite) of the army, has also argued that the judiciary and military are jointly conspiring against him. One of the points of divergence between Sharif and the army were relations with India, as Sharif has always batted for better relations with New Delhi.
There is absolutely no doubt that Imran’s relations with the army have improved considerably according to some. Imran has also publicly praised the army chief, recently calling Bajwa “probably the most pro-democratic man [Pakistan] has ever seen.” There is a good chance that PTI, backed by the military establishment, may win in the upcoming elections of 2018. The commentary, and Bajwa’s statements, could be a message to India that New Delhi will have to engage with the military in case PTI were to come to power.
In this context, Bajwa has been trying to cultivate the image of a pragmatist not opposed to peace. A few months ago in an article written for The News, the prominent left-leaning Pakistani journalist Sohail Warraich wrote:
The Bajwa doctrine stands for regional peace and, like China, wants to make peace with India while keeping our differences on core issues. The doctrine is ready for peaceful negotiations but without compromising on the Kashmir issue. The doctrine is fully aware of the Chinese advice to Pakistan that instead of war, other peaceful measure be negotiated for Kashmir issue.
It is important for New Delhi to wait and watch, while engaging with the business community and Pakistan’s vibrant civil society is absolutely essential. Not much should be read into Bajwa’s remarks. They should be taken note of, and not dismissed, but it is a bit premature to be optimistic. After all, the army has been backing the Milli Muslim League (MML), a civil front of the JuD, headed by the Mumbai terror attack mastermind, Hafiz Saeed.
It will also be interesting to see the ultimate outcome of the upcoming election in July.
New Delhi needs to deal with whoever is in power in Pakistan, and the army is an important power center there. A civilian government (possibly PTI) beholden to the establishment will not address India’s concerns the way a firm civilian government which has the fervent backing of the people (this may not happen in the imminent future, but is a reality) would. The Pakistan Army Chief’s words would have had more meaning if he had backed Nawaz Sharif’s attempts towards improving ties with India, and not joined hands with the judiciary to plot his downfall.