As Pakistan and India make a renewed attempt at normalising relations, the question on everyone’s mind is whether it would be realistic to expect that the new Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue will be any different from previous efforts at initiating talks, and will Pakistan and India transcend their perennial distrust and work towards a cooperative relationship. Experience teaches us that unless there is genuine desire on the part of both parties to break from the past, mere agreements are unlikely to deliver results. Prime Minister Narendra Modi took a hard stance against Pakistan and refused to engage with it until such time that it moved forward on the Mumbai trial and also yielded on other bilateral issues. This policy of pressuring failed to achieve its objective as Pakistan had its own priorities to advance. Persuasion, if not pressure, from the US and Britain on Modi to engage with Pakistan was also helpful in initiating dialogue. Setbacks to the BJP in state elections, first in Delhi and later in Bihar, were also a reminder that a change in policy was needed — both domestic and external fronts.
We now know that both countries’ designated representatives had been working quietly at the backchannel for the past several months to allay each other’s serious misgivings. It was only after their concerns were addressed that the meeting of the two prime ministers took place in Paris on November 30 and set the tone for a future course of action. The meeting of the national security advisers of the two countries — General Nasser Janjua and Ajit Doval — helped in finalising the understanding. Do these developments have the potential to change the fundamental nature and direction of relations between these perennial antagonists? Have we come to the point where the trajectory of our relationship can be altered or will we continue with the mantra of one-upmanship through indulging in blame games and working towards undermining each other?
Unless there is a serious analysis of the losses and gains of our past policies, no correction is possible. What have Pakistan and India gained by their rhetoric against each other? All the problems — Jammu and Kashmir, Siachen, Sir Creek, Wullar barrage and terrorism remain static and many more challenging issues keep cropping up. Both countries need to behave like mature nations. How long will it take for both to realise that the first casualty of this behaviour has been their own people? It is one thing to indulge in point-scoring but the more challenging aspect is solving problems. Pakistan insists on Kashmir and India’s top priority is terrorism, giving the impression that they are living in two different worlds. Both are serious problems for the two countries and in many facets inter-related and need to be resolved. Kashmir, clearly, is the most intractable issue and would require all three parties to the dispute to show flexibility to arrive at an amicable solution. Views of India and Pakistan on Kashmir are radically apart and reconciling these would require a change of mindset. No one should have any illusions that this can come about in a charged and hostile environment. The sooner this realisation comes, the better; otherwise, we will be going round in circles.
As the military makes remarkable strides in clearing the terrorist sanctuaries in Fata, the entire policy of harbouring militants to advance national interests needs to be buried. Non-state actors served a purpose at a certain stage in history. That phase is over and our policies should conform to the changing scenarios. While Pakistan has changed its policy in this regard, its complete implementation needs to be expedited. Speeding up the Mumbai trial will not only build confidence in India of Pakistan’s sincerity, but would also enhance the latter’s credibility with the international community. There are genuine legal lacunas that can be overcome with India’s cooperation. India, too, has to stop using the TTP and Baloch dissidents against Pakistan. To prove their sincerity to each other, both countries have to ensure that none of their policies undermines the security of the other. We also cannot close our eyes to the presence and influence of radical madrassas and the harmful influence of Lal Masjid on the psyche of young and gullible minds.
India’s main policy thrust is towards economic development and at the international level it aspires to be a major political power. If it fails to normalise relations with its immediate neighbours, its image will be affected and its potential thwarted. In Pakistan, the imbalance in civil-military relations gives a major leeway to the military to heavily influence policy on India. Despite this contradiction, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif seems resolute in pursuing a workable and tension-free relationship. He strongly feels that improvement in relations will allow him to move forward on implementing his vision of regional connectivity. The army leadership, too, is interested in normalising relations so as to focus on counter-insurgency and counterterrorism operations in Fata, Balochistan and Karachi. It fully realises the benefits of regional cooperation.
As long as relations with India remain only security-oriented with little progress on trade, travel, tourism and usage of health and educational facilities, there will be no bonding. This, of course, does not imply that we can overlook the centrality of security issues that threaten the lives and prosperity of people. But if all other dimensions remain perpetually in the background, then we are only living from one incident to another. Pakistan and India should also recognise the importance of the role of their peoples and the private sector in building the bilateral relationship. Economic and commercial ties bind nations and soften their attitude towards each other. Geo-economics is as vital as geo-politics. Regrettably, in the past this aspect remained neglected and even now it is not given the priority it deserves. China’s economic corridor, hopefully, will be transformational for Pakistan and also bring into focus the merits of regional cooperation. Similarly, linking Turkmenistan with Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, through the gas pipeline, can bring positive dividends in both economic and political terms.