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Pak-India relations: Why it’s risky to cross the ‘red line’

The atmospherics between Prime Minister Imran Khan and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was never good. They have never met as prime ministers – the only time they met in 2015 was when Imran Khan was leading a movement against former prime minister Nawaz Sharif ’s government, the central plank of which was to show Modi in a negative light as an enemy of Pakistan. Countless times during his stint as opposition leader, Imran Khan targeted Nawaz Sharif and Modi in the same vein, i.e. conspiring against the interests of Pakistan.

Since coming to power, Imran Khan has accused Modi of being a fascist who has made life difficult for Muslims in India. Modi is no less aggressive in describing Pakistan as the epicenter of terrorism. The outcome is a relationship based on acrimony and antagonism. Since the political leadership of the two countries is engaged in a blame game of allegations and counter-allegations, the chances of improvement in bilateral relations are becoming grim with each passing day.

Contrast to this situation, with the improving atmospherics between Nawaz Sharif and Modi after the former took over power for the third time in 2013. At that time Indian diplomats in Islamabad could be heard whispering at diplomatic functions that the Pakistani and Indian prime ministers enjoyed a special relation-ship which would soon result in dramatic improvement in ties between the two countries. Later Modi came unannounced on a visit to the private residence of Nawaz Sharif in Lahore while the latter could be heard saying good things about India.

The basic plank of these improved atmospherics was the under-standing that the two governments would go the extra mile to build the trust needed on both sides to tackle the problem of cross-border terrorism. This was interpreted in Pakistan as a betrayal of national interests.

Imran Khan, who at that time was opposition leader, was at the forefront of a campaign to malign Nawaz Sharif as someone who was damaging national interests by entering into dubious friendship with Modi. The slogan “Modi ka jo yar hai, ghadar hai ghadar hai” (whoever is a friend of Modi is a traitor) served as the main plank of Imran Khan’s election campaign in the 2018 parliamentary polls, which brought him to power.

Although during the initial months he showed exceptional interest in resuming structured bilateral talks with India, this remained a pipedream in the face of acrimony that existed between the officialdom of the two countries. The hybrid government that came to power made some initial attempts to normalize relations with India, but this didn’t change anything.

Many among Islamabad’s insiders and security experts are of the firm opinion that normalizing relations with India in order to avoid a conflict was not a personal policy of Nawaz Sharif. Rather this is based on a consensus reached in late 1990s that the govern-ment would always try to use normalization talks as a policy to avoid a major military conflict with India. Successive governments have employed different diplomatic tools to pursue this policy.

Not surprisingly, the political and military leaders tried to pursue the same policy. In an uncharacteristic overture on April 14 this year, Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa laid out an offer of peace talks to India.

“It is our sincere belief that the route to peaceful resolution of Pak-India disputes – including the core issue of Kashmir – runs through comprehensive and meaningful dialogue,”

he said while addressing the passing-out parade ceremony of Pakistan Military Academy cadets in Kakul.

The general’s speech came as a bit of a surprise for political observers in Islamabad. Given the fact that it was a full-fledged policy statement meant to offer peace talks to archrival India, it should have come from a civil government. But very few people were aware that General Bajwa was to embark on a visit to Moscow within two weeks. Even fewer knew that Pakistan was in talks with the Russian Federation for the purchase of state-of-the-art battle tanks, T-90, along with other modern weapons.

Pakistan was facing problems in convincing the Russian military-industrial complex for the sale of military hardware, especially in the face of intense Indian lobbying in the power corridors of Moscow against Pakistan. General Bajwa’s speech was meant to convey to his Russian interlocutors that Pakistan was ready to reduce political and military tensions with India but would still be needing military hardware to deal with the difficult task of stabilizing its western border in the face of religious extremism and militancy.

The chief’s statement was preceded by a flurry of activity by senior army officials aimed at publicly projecting that the army was not opposed to the idea of peace with India. Regular ceasefire violations along the Line of Control (LoC) followed a proposal from the military’s General Headquarters that Pakistani and Indian director generals of military operations should meet face to face in an effort to reduce tensions. Similarly, a senior army officer posted in Balochistan offered India to join the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor along with other regional countries.

When the tussle between the military and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif started gathering heat after the Supreme Court’s verdict against the latter in July 2017, one of the perceived reasons for the army’s top brass chasing the prime minister out of power was his excessive inclination to normalize ties with India. In the words of a senior security analyst, General Bajwa’s statement on India was primarily aimed at clearing this perception.

“This is a policy statement meant to clarify the army’s position that we have nothing against this policy option,” says Brigadier (retd) Shaukat Qadir.

However, the perception that the army was opposed to talks with India was not without basis. During his last two years in power, Sharif’s relations with the army were in a continuous downward spiral. This was mainly because of two developments. First was the publication of a story in Dawn reporting on the Sharif brothers’ reprimand of military men. Nawaz Sharif was seen as trying to please his foreign friends in New Delhi and Washington, and this was a constant source of friction between him and the military. The second was the visit of Indian steel magnate Sajjan Jindal to Pakistan. The army’s annoyance at the Jindal and Sharif families’ meeting was made known within the power corridors and in the media.

Nawaz Sharif has been advocating better relations between the two countries since 1993. The impression of the army scuttling peace efforts with India was reinforced during the political agitation against his government led by Imran Khan in August 2014. The agitation coincided with heightened tensions along the LoC, forcing Nawaz Sharif to assume an aggressive posture against India.

In the past 10 years, some fluctuations in the army’s attitude towards India seem to be personality-driven. But military analysts say the variation is because of the changing situation on the western border. During the time of General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the army told the government led by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) that talks with India were a necessity in order to avoid a major conflict.

“General Kayani was telling the PPP leadership that keep talking with India as the army does not want a major conflict … but don’t get too close to India,” a senior official of the Foreign Office once told this scribe.

This was in complete contrast to the army’s policy during the tenure of General Raheel Sharif. The situation at the LoC remained tense and political analysts say the army employed its manipulative tools to keep Nawaz Sharif away from the idea of normalizing ties with India. The two Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf-led agitations were also seen in that light.

Even if one takes a charitable view, Pakistan’s India policy is in a state of utter confusion for the past five years. There is credible evidence to suggest that Nawaz Sharif was chased out of power just because he took the 1990s consensus in officialdom to normalize relations with India too seriously. The officialdom just wants to pursue peace talks for conflict avoidance and doesn’t want to go beyond this line. Maybe Nawaz Sharif wanted to cross the red line set by Pakistani officials. The 1990s official consensus seems to have lost its utility in the face of Indian response that it is not ready to resume talks unless the critical problem of cross-border terrorism is tackled seriously.

Article by: Umer Farooq

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