India and Pakistan recently cancelled a scheduled meeting between the countries’ national security advisers proving that normalization of relations is not a priority for either country.
New is old again. The hopes for a thaw in India-Pakistan relations will continue to fall short so long as the relationship is beholden to over-simplified media headlines and a misunderstanding of each other’s domestic politics and strategic thinking.
The recent cancellation of a meeting between the countries’ national security advisers (NSAs) was not about Kashmir or terrorism. It was about the fundamentals of their relationship. More importantly, it was a clear expression of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s approach to Indian foreign policy and to relations with Pakistan in particular.
Modi’s India is a growing regional power with a big power’s ambitions, which include achieving greater global influence, uncontested leadership in South Asia, and the ability to eclipse local challenges and rivalries. When it comes to Pakistan, normalization is not as critical as dealing with the terrorism that threatens to destabilize India and neutralize whatever is left of Pakistan’s dwindling support for Kashmir. To keep the balance of power tipped in its favor, India will continue developing its own economic and military strength, develop strategic relations with the United States, and seek relative gains in the region through outreach to Iran and Afghanistan. By trying to increase Pakistan’s isolation and internal troubles, India feels it can strengthen its hand and is therefore hesitant to grant concessions to Pakistan that it feels Pakistan will be forced concede in time.
India is mistaken. Because, when it comes to India, Pakistan does not consider itself to be weak. In fact, Pakistan’s posture with regard to India may be the only genuine icon of Pakistan’s national strength.
Important policymakers in Pakistan feel the country may both benefit and lose from normalizing relations with India. The military’s security perceptions of India might be put to the test by normalization, a risk it may not be willing to take. And while some sections of business might gain, some influential factions of domestic industry and the trade lobby may face the threat of greater competition.
In sum, there is neither a compulsion nor incentive for Pakistan to seek normalization in bilateral relations, and certainly not on India’s terms. There is also a new-found confidence in Pakistan about its ability to neutralize the threat of domestic terrorism and insurgency (including the alleged Indian role in it). And there is more economic optimism as a result of China’s plan to invest approximately $46 billion to develop the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
Normalization does not yet appear to be in India’s interest either.
Modi does not need Pakistan for his economic agenda. At approximately $2.5 billion in 2014, bilateral trade is merely a rounding error in the context of India‘s global trade — $776 billion for the same period. At any rate, informal or illegal trade between the two countries is already taking place, and strong business and bureaucratic interests are resistant to formalizing it further. For India, there is enough low-hanging fruit elsewhere — America, China, Japan, and Southeast Asia are veritable trade orchards. As for seeking Pakistan’s cooperation in forming greater linkages with regional states, much needs to happen first (i.e., Afghanistan’s stabilization, Pakistan’s fight against terrorism, and the normalization of U.S.-Iran relations) for projects like transit trade and energy pipelines to become a reality and affect India’s strategic calculation with regard to normalization.
That is why the July joint statement that came out of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting in Ufa, Russia, was a surprise to many; both sides agreed to “a meeting in New Delhi between the two NSAs to discuss all issues connected to terrorism,” and Modi confirmed he would attend the 2016 summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in Islamabad, which would be his first trip to Pakistan as prime minister.
But as the August meeting in New Delhi approached, domestic criticism mounted against Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for Kashmir’s absence in the Ufa joint statement. Sartaj Aziz, Pakistan’s national security adviser, invited the Hurriyat leaders — Kashmiri separatists — for areception at the High Commissioner estate in New Delhi the day before the scheduled meeting. It was a contentious exercise from the Indian standpoint, but from Pakistan’s perspective, it was only a symbolic one. But India reacted strongly and allowed no room for Sharif to maneuver when it set an impossible precondition for the talks — no meeting with the Hurriyat leaders. For Sharif to go ahead with the meeting would have signaled the abrogation of Pakistan’s commitment to Kashmir.
India should recognize that changes are taking place in Pakistan’s thinking on Kashmir, facilitated no doubt by former President General Pervez Musharraf’s four-point approach. Pakistan is aware of the internal costs its Kashmir policy engenders. But 68 years of strategic commitment to Kashmir cannot be written off as a sunk cost. Pakistan’s support for the Kashmir cause will continue in some reduced form or another until Pakistan reaches a settlement that does not make it look defeated and saves Kashmiris from looking like they have been abandoned by a weak or opportunistic Pakistan. Pakistan needs India’s cooperation in completing the transition.
If Modi genuinely wants change, he has to support those who want to change the status quo. Sharif cannot, and the military will not, proceed according to the Indian agenda as expressed in mid-August. If India sincerely wants to improve the bilateral relationship, it should refrain from putting Pakistan’s politicians in a corner.
Slamming the door shut on Pakistan’s politicians and adopting a policy of zero tolerance conveys a strong message: that Pakistan must bend to India’s will, totally and at once. This kind of approach is not even accepted by those in favor of normalization, much less the hardliners in Pakistan. It only ensures that the likes of Hafiz Saeed, the founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba, continues to roam freely.
Like in the case of Pakistan, the relationship has also entered the body politic of India, where a tough line towards Pakistan has long come to the rescue of a faltering political leadership. Modi’s promised economic miracle has not yet arrived, and there are domestic troubles brewing. His hardline approach to Pakistan may be the only feather in his cap. For the sake of India and for India-Pakistan relations, one hopes his economic agenda succeeds so that he can take the risk of achieving peace with Pakistan.