The Political Fix: After Starting To Thaw, India-Pakistan Ties Run Into An Imran Khan U-Turn
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The Political Fix: After Starting To Thaw, India-Pakistan Ties Run Into An Imran Khan U-Turn

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The Big Story: Cottoned On

Here are three long-standing bits of conventional wisdom regarding the
India-Pakistan dispute and any potential peace process:

  • We’re more likely to see a deal when India is being run by a
    right-wing, i.e. Bhartiya Janata Party leader – because they would be
    less susceptible to ‘weak-on-national security’ attacks
  • India won’t accept any third-party intervention, and will vehemently
    push back against any suggestion of mediation
  • There’s no point for New Delhi in engaging just with Pakistan’s
    civilian leaders. The Pakistan Army holds all the cards. If its top
    brass can be convinced, the civilian leadership won’t get in the

Each of these has plenty of truth to them, yet over the years there have been
plenty of reasons to prise apart some of the underlying assumptions behind

It is true, for example, that the decades-old dispute appeared to come close
to some semblance of a resolution under former Indian Prime Minister Atal
Bihari Vajpayee, the country’s first BJP prime minister. But that effort also
carried on under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and the relative progress at
the time may have had as much to do with who was on the other side of the
table, Pakistan Army chief-turned-dictator-President Pervez Musharraf.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tenure began with many repeating the
expectation that a BJP leader was better poised to push for a peace deal.
Indeed, Modi’s unannounced and unplanned visit to Lahore for former Pakistan
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s grand-daughter’s wedding in 2015 – the first
visit of an Indian prime minister to Pakistan since Vajpayee in 1999 – seemed
to set the table for further détente.

Instead, what followed appeared to a bizarre foreign policy roller-coaster
that included Pakistan-supported militant attacks on military bases in India,
New Delhi permitting a Pakistani team including a member of the Inter-Services
Intelligence to visit as part of the investigations, 2016’s ‘surgical strikes’
by India along the Line of Control, External Affairs Minister-level meetings
being confirmed and cancelled a week apart and the Pulwama-Balakot series of
incidents that saw the two countries on the brink of war.

Over the last few weeks, with those memories and Pakistan’s indignation over
Modi’s decision to bifurcate and downgrade Jammu and Kashmir from a state into
a union territory having receded, the expectation that the India-Pakistan
peace process can get back on track has once again been revived. But we’ll
come to the latest developments in a moment. The second axiom is one of those standard divergences between Indian and
Pakistani positions. Islamabad – as the weaker power in this equation – has
repeatedly called for a third-party mediated process. New Delhi has been firm
in its stance that the dispute is a purely bilateral matter for decades now.

On March 21, Bloomberg reported that the United Arab Emirates had “brokered”
talks between India and Pakistan that led to the unexpected February joint
statement between the Director Generals of Military Operations of both
countries re-committing to the ceasefire at the Line of Control. The report was met with silence from not just the UAE but also Pakistan and
India’s Ministry of External Affairs. While analysts are quite certain that
the level of Emirati intervention would at most have been to facilitate
dialogue between the two countries – who had withdrawn their high
commissioners in 2019 – the lack of response to is a marked contrast from
India’s outright rejection of former US President Donald Trump’s offer to
mediate in 2020.

Aside from the fascinating evolution in ties between India, Pakistan and the
Gulf countries over the last decade – which could fill up a whole other piece
– it also reflects New Delhi’s relative confidence in allowing the UAE to
project its own narrative, even if doesn’t quite tally precisely with the
Indian one.

And finally, the dictum that the Pakistan Army offers single-window clearance
for peace initiatives.

The most recent rapprochement, at least from the view of the public, began
with a statement from Pakistan Army Chief Qamar Bajwa in February, saying “it
is time to extend a hand of peace in all directions”. This was followed up in March with another Bajwa speech, this time at the first Islamabad Security Dialogue:

“Stable Indo-Pak relation is a key to unlock the untapped potential of South
and Central Asia by ensuring connectivity between East and West Asia. This
potential however, has forever remained hostage to disputes and issues between
two nuclear neighbours. Kashmir dispute is obviously at the head of this
problem. It is important to understand that without the resolution of Kashmir
dispute through peaceful means, process of sub-continental rapprochement will
always remain susceptible to derailment due to politically motivated
bellicosity. However, we feel that it is time to bury the past and move
forward. But for resumption of peace process or meaningful dialogue, our
neighbour will have to create conducive environment, particularly in Indian
Occupied Kashmir.”

That may not sound like a ringing endorsement but for anyone who follows
India-Pakistan ties closely, Bajwa’s line on burying the past and his failure
to bring up Article 370 or India’s 2019 moves clearly signalled a softening
stance. It wasn’t just rhetoric either. Indian Army Chief MM Naravane said in March
that the ceasefire had actually held. “I am glad to inform that in the whole
month of March, we have not had a single shot fired at the Line of Control
barring an odd incident,” Naravane said. “It is for the first time in about
five or six years that the LoC has been silent. That really bodes well for the

Other dominoes seemed ready to fall quite quickly. Modi wrote to Pakistan
Prime Minister Imran Khan to extend greetings on Pakistan’s National Day,
saying India desires “cordial relations” with its neighbour.

Khan replied, with a similar message.

Further reporting revealed a back-channel between Indian National Security
Advisor Ajit Doval and Khan’s Special Assistant on National Security Division
and Strategic Policy Planning Moeed Yusuf. Islamabad’s relative restraint
during India’s military tensions with China over the past year offered another
indication of the potential thaw in ties.

Many remained cautious still, if not outright cynical. The India-Pakistan
relationship has tended tumble through the same cycle every few years, only to
return to a hostile status quo.

“For those asking why the ceasefire and subsequent events happened right now,
the answers lie more in domestic reasons than international,” said Aparna
Pande, director for the Initiative on the Future of India and South Asia at
the Hudson Institute, to the Print. “Pakistan is under considerable pressure.
The civilian government is weak and not interested in foreign policy. As the
institution that in effect has dictated Pakistan’s foreign and domestic
politics, the Army feels there is too much pressure on the country and that
there is a need to alleviate that pressure.”

Then came the harder pivot: Could military softening translate into better
trade ties?

India had, after the Pulwama attack in 2019, put a 200% customs duty on goods
from Pakistan. In return, after the August 2019 changes to Jammu and Kashmir’s
status, Pakistan suspended bilateral trade. In March, Pakistan’s Finance Minister Hammad Azhar said that the government,
struggling to handle high inflation and local shortages, had decided to lift
its ban on the import of cotton and sugar from India.

What followed was somewhat farcical. Pakistan’s Economic Coordination
Committee cleared the proposal to import cotton and sugar from India, which
had been forwarded to it by the Commerce Ministry, which is headed by Imran
Khan, who holds the portfolio. It was then forwarded to the Cabinet for what should have been a
straightforward endorsement. Instead, the Cabinet – headed, naturally, by
Imran Khan – shot it down. Khan then held a meeting to review bilateral ties,
in which he concluded that Pakistan will not trade with India “till India
reviews the steps it took on August 5, 2019” referring to the downgrading and
bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir.

Rezaul H Laskar reported on the divisions within Imran Khan’s government that
led to this flip-flop:

“According to the buzz in Islamabad, much of this debate was spurred by
hawkish elements in the Imran Khan government, including interior minister
Sheikh Rashid Ahmed and foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi…

According to the insiders, even Qureshi wasn’t in the loop on the contacts
that led to the ceasefire announcement in February and this was reflected in
his hawkish speech at the Islamabad Security Dialogue last month. In marked
contrast, Bajwa spoke at the same event about the need to “bury the past and
move forward.”

Here is Moeed Yusuf struggling to explain Khan’s U-turn:

One can only imagine the thoughts of Pakistan Finance Minister Hammad Azhar,
who was in his very first day on the job. More importantly, it appears evident
that the pushback here was at least partly political, and not military. As
Praveen Swami writes:

“Ever since February, when India and Pakistan reinstated the 2003 Line of
Control ceasefire agreement, speculation has mounted on what the next-steps in
the peace process might be: Visas, cricket, Siachen, even, who knows, open
borders in Kashmir? The optimism derives from the belief among many Indian and
Western analysts that Generals like Pakistan’s army chief, Qamar Javed Bajwa,
can do what politicians like Zardari or Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif could not.

Last week, the world was treated to a public performance illustrating just how
wrong that assumption is…

The volte-face tells us that avoiding war isn’t quite the same thing as making
peace. Inside Pakistan’s Army-dominated strategic establishment, there are
deep divisions on the way forward, and what price the country ought be willing
to pay for peace.”

For the moment the decision has only been deferred, and Pakistan’s textile
manufacturers have complained about the U-turn, warning of its downstream
impact on exports. The thaw may well continue. But the events are a reminder
of how delicate the entire process is going to be and how none of the things
analysts take for granted when it comes to India-Pakistan relations will
necessarily hold true.

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