Pakistan and India have too much to lose
Indian foreign secretary’s planned visit to Pakistan has raised hopes that the two South Asian nuclear-armed neighbours would soon revive their comprehensive dialogue towards resolution of longstanding issues.
The development follows US diplomatic encouragement for resumption of the South Asian peace process. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had unilaterally cancelled August 2014 bilateral parleys, phoned his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif this month to inform of the Indian foreign secretary’s March 3 visit.
On the eve of the telephonic conversation between the two South Asian leaders, President Barack Obama – who had also discussed South Asian relations with Modi during his visit to New Delhi last month – called Sharif to express support for steps towards repairing Pakistan-India tensions. Top American diplomat John Kerry also visited both India and Pakistan in January, ahead of President Obama’s visit to New Delhi.
The three-way US-Pakistan-India contacts mark a triangular equation that in the post-9/11 years has prevented the two South Asian neighbours from going to conflict during 2001-02 and 2008 crises.
But will Islamabad and New Delhi use this opportunity to pursue a meaningful peace process? What are the factors that in the changing regional scenario that may compel both countries to anchor their peace quest on bold political will?
The events transpiring between August 2014 and now have vitiated the environment, effectively eroding the initial goodwill emerging from the Sharif-Modi meeting in New Delhi at the inaugural ceremony of the new Indian prime minister in May 2014. The region has witnessed the worst cross-border shelling and animus rhetoric in several years. Defence Minister Khawaja Asif’s revelation this week that the Baloch separatists travel on Indian passports, and Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval’s acerbic propagation of “defensive offense” strategy toward Pakistan point to the extent of hostilities.
On the eve of the telephonic conversation between the two South Asian leaders, President Barack Obama – who had also discussed South Asian relations with Modi during his visit to New Delhi last month – called Sharif to express support for steps towards repairing Pakistan-India tensions
The chasm of distrust has certainly has led to extremist and maximalist voices on both sides calling the shots in public discussions.
Yet, there are plentiful reasons that make Pakistan-India peace a necessity for both sides. A series of geostrategic developments since the start of the century, like China’s rapid economic rise and its expanding influence in the wider region including Afghanistan, the US and Chinese stakes in regional peace, the transitioning American engagement at the end of the Afghan war, New Delhi’s economic growth momentum and its contrast with the high cost of constant state of conflict with Islamabad, Pakistan’s Zarb-e-Azb operation, drive against militancy in the aftermath of December 16, 2014 Peshawar school massacre, signs of economic recovery as well as its role towards Afghan reconciliation, the post-Hamid Karzai onset of sanity in Kabul with President Ashraf Ghani’s pragmatic approach to relations with neighbours, have all heightened imperatives for South Asian peace.
The long history of Pakistan-India conflicts and recent acrimony mean it would take much more than just a diplomatic push to orchestrate an irreversible peace process between them. In addition to fluctuating international economic trends and challenges like ISIS militancy, the two countries have a wide array of reasons – some entirely domestic and others inter-related – to go for a genuine peace effort that spurs their fights against poverty and extremism – the factors that hold back the region from actualising its full potential.
Both the PML-N-led Sharif government in Islamabad and BJP-led Modi government in New Delhi have been voted to power on the promise to lift teeming millions out of the poverty trap.
According to a 2014 World Bank report “Addressing Inequality in South Asia” — the region houses world’s biggest population of the poor.
Pakistan is ranked 146th on the Human Development Index, its militancy-hit areas are the last frontiers in the global fight against polio, annual education spending is below three percent of GDP, millions are added each year to the large number of children, almost one-third, who do not go to schools, millions more still end up receiving education in madrassas with very limited economic opportunity upon graduation. Young Pakistanis left out in the cold are vulnerable to urban crime, and militancy, ready to be brainwashed by TTP and sectarian outfits. In order to reinforce key fundamentals of a functioning state, Islamabad must race against time to recover from a myriad of serious problems.
India has made impressive strides economically in the post-2001 years, and is now the tenth largest economy in the world. But socio-economic uplift remains highly uneven in the country, placed 135th on the Human Development Index. According to The State of the Poor Report, around 400 million Indians live in extreme poverty with little or no access to basic facilities like education, health or electricity. In the socio-political perspective, numerous reports have documented societal inequality and poverty as being factors behind people embracing other faiths. Militant organisations like RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) then use these trends as an excuse to perpetrate forced conversions and violence against minorities. The situation coincides with expanding influence of the ruling nationalist BJP, a phenomenon that, according to Indian writer Kuldip Nayar, poses an unprecedented challenge to Indian secularism.
Additionally, the potential for bilateral trade that, according to studies, could grow to $ 20 billion annually, ratchets up urgency for a peaceful neighbourhood.
Another stimulus for Islamabad and New Delhi to be circumspect is the fact that South Asian conflicts and endemic poverty have a cause and effect relationship, as hefty amounts from limited resources are diverted to defence spending.
Despite India’s comfortable state of economy, sustainable development of the two countries has a high degree of interdependence due to their geographic proximity and security, economic and political implications that arise from bilateral tensions. As the two largest South Asian countries, Pakistan and India must shoulder the responsibility to pull the region – endowed with unlimited possibilities of progress — out of its troubled situation what in the words of Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid could be described as “a mess with incredible potential.”
The US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan captured the two-way criticality of Pakistan-India relations.
“There is no relationship more critical to Pakistan’s future than its relationship with its neighbour. And I am convinced that India’s rise in prosperity and global leadership cannot be fully realised until it has a better relationship with Pakistan,” Dan Feldman remarked recently.
Acclaimed expert Stephen Cohen argues that the two largest South Asian countries’ advancing as democracies has tremendous futuristic value for the region.
Both the PML-N-led Sharif government in Islamabad and BJP-led Modi government in New Delhi have been voted to power on the promise to lift teeming millions out of the poverty trap
“The United States has a strong interest in the normalisation of India-Pakistan relations that goes far beyond normal ‘good’ ties to each of them. Their normalisation is more important than Afghanistan’s stabilisation or building India up as a barrier to an expanding China,” Cohen writes in his book “Shooting for a Century: The India-Pakistan Conundrum.”
A relatively new factor compelling bilateral cooperation is the emergence of unconventional and climate threats and issues like water outflows from the Himalayas, controversies surrounding construction of dams, environmental pollution, flash-floods and its devastating implications as seen in last year’s flooding on both sides of the Line of Control in Kashmir.
Then the two countries must deal with the highly charged longstanding political, territorial and security issues like the UN-recognised Jammu and Kashmir dispute, Siachen, Sir Creek, terrorism including 2008 Mumbai attacks and 2007 Samjhota Express bombings – which together have shaped Pakistani and Indian policies in recent years.
In the regional context, SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) has long been hostage to Pakistan-India conflicts with the result that the region is the least integrated part of the world with intra-regional commerce stagnating at around five percent of the total trade.
New Deli, which is a far cry from competing with China as an equal in terms of regional influence and economic progress, also has an incentive to improve relations with Pakistan as plans like the new Silk route hold out tremendous promise for trade between South and Central Asian regions.
But how the revival of dialogue turns out to be would depend largely on the manner the two sides approach the high-stakes issues like Kashmir, which British historian William Dalrymple has called South Asia’s “gaping wound.”
The diametrically opposed positions on Kashmir divide the two countries bitterly, even as the festering dispute has been a major cause of much suffering and militancy. Indeed, many observers believe that US Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement that unresolved Palestinian questions fuels militancy also holds true for Kashmir.
Given the prevalent political narratives on Kashmir, a history of fits and starts initiatives on selective issues, and the enormous new stakes the neighbours have in a cooperative peaceful coexistence, the most viable path forward seems to be one which – backed up by civil society and soft power engagement like bilateral sporting events and collaborations in the fields of creative arts – seeks to make progress on all issues simultaneously, and provide political space for both sides to move forward.