India, Pakistan unlikely to shake hands soon

Experts warn that the onus of keeping Russians away from Pakistan is on India, which must take proactive steps to improve the economic partnership and strengthen the strategic understanding with Russia

Aug 14, 2021
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Pakistan Insights 2020; Editor Tilak Devasher

For more reasons than one, the traditionally strained relationship between India and Pakistan, now perhaps at one of its lowest ebb, is likely to remain in cold storage for some time to come. And despite a precarious majority in parliament, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan will last, as long as he lets the military have its say on foreign policy and strategic issues.

This is the conclusion of some of the best Indian minds on Pakistan who exchanged notes during discussions held in the Pakistan Study Group (PSG) of the Vivekananda International Foundation, and which has been deftly put together in this book by the veteran Pakistan watcher, author and strategic analyst Tilak Devasher.

Although Pakistan brazenly pursues a policy of promoting non-state actors to achieve what it cannot overtly, with the Islamabad-backed Taliban set to return to power in Afghanistan, it continues to not only draw the support of its ‘all-weather friend’ China but has also firmly added new ‘Islamic’ friends and the Soviet Union in its diplomatic kitty.

For one, Imran Khan has followed an activist policy, reckoning himself to be a statesman in the mold of Pakistan founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah, says Arvind Gupta, a former diplomat. But the cricketer-turned-politician appears weak in front of the fundamentalists. His anti-India psyche, evident even when he played cricket, has made him unleash the most vitriolic attacks on his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, particularly over Kashmir.

Issues facing Pakistan

Islamist tendencies continue to deepen in Pakistan and Islamic seminaries keep sprouting. At the same time, the insurgency in Balochistan, the country’s largest province, continues to simmer. The Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) is attracting support in the badlands bordering Afghanistan even as it blames the military for unending extra-judicial killings.

Pakistan’s economy is slipping, and the consequences will be disastrous if the country is moved to the blacklist of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). Scholar Askriti Vinayak warns that Pakistan, despite an IMF bailout, “is teetering on a potential economic disaster”.

The one good news for Pakistan is the drop in terrorism-linked violence. Militant attacks, including suicide bombings, have fallen. The process started in 2014-15 and is continuing. But there is enough evidence that terrorism remains the leitmotif of the establishment and a strategy against India and Afghanistan in particular. Pakistan has quietly removed 4,000 names from the ‘proscribed persons list’ maintained by the National Counter Terrorism Authority; one of the beneficiaries being Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (Let) mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai terror attack.

Nuclear weapons, Kashmir

Shalini Chawla, a Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies in New Delhi, points out that nuclear weapons are integral to Pakistan’s overall strategic positioning against India. The reason it has the weapons is to prevent war and to conduct a policy of sub-conventional warfare through terrorism without fear of Indian military retaliation. Pakistan has a fast-growing arsenal and reportedly possesses about 160 warheads. Chawla warns that if Islamabad, driven by brinksmanship, resorts to a nuclear strike against India, the consequences for Pakistan would be fatal.

While Pakistan had been upping the ante in its use of terror against India well before Imran Khan became the Prime Minister, bilateral relations are now marked by the absence of any substantive dialogue. India-Pakistan trade has plummeted to almost zero along with communication links.

While India’s decision to do away with Article 370 of its constitution vis-à-vis Jammu and Kashmir may not have ignited the feared mass protests, former High Commissioner to Pakistan Satish Chandra admits that popular perceptions of the Indian action have gone against New Delhi, particularly in the Western world. Pakistan has played a key role in diluting Indian concerns.

Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain, a former Corps Commander of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps, agrees and says that taking diplomats from New Delhi on guided tours of Srinagar did not make the desired impact “because the international media was insufficiently convinced about the post-decision handling of the situation.” India failed to reach out to international think tanks and the international media to explain the Indian narrative.

Pakistan’s closeness to China, Russia

China-Pakistan relations are getting stronger despite the occasional strains and undue expectations that either side has from the other, says scholar Sushant Sareen. Strategically, there is almost complete convergence between the two countries vis-à-vis India. While the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – a framework of regional connectivity, considered one of the most ambitious infrastructure projects under the Chinese-funded Belt and Road Initiative - is keeping Pakistan afloat, the Pakistanis have been remarkably silent on the mistreatment of Muslims in China.

Sareen says China is getting what it wants out of the relationship. In Pakistan, corruption scandals involving the Chinese get shut down suddenly. In the long run, Beijing would like visa-free travel for the Chinese visiting Pakistan and see the Yuan as legal tender at least in Gwadar Port, developed as a part of CPEC.

Hiccups have come to mark the traditionally friendly Pakistan-Saudi Arabia bonhomie after Islamabad threw its weight behind Turkey, Malaysia, Iran and Qatar in a bid to challenge Riyadh’s leadership of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC). Gen Hasnain, however, warns that this relationship may not take a negative turn as easily as perceived by some. Israel, he says, has developed an informal relationship with Pakistan but the latter does not wish to officially admit it. Despite irritants, Pakistan enjoys good relations with Iran, which has – like Malaysia and Turkey – taken a bitterly anti-India stance over Kashmir.  

The most significant change in diplomatic equations concerns Pakistan and Russia, once a tried and trusted friend of India. Partly because of the Afghanistan factor and partly due to India’s growing dalliance with the US, Moscow has further cemented its friendship with Pakistan, its Cold War foe. The real strategic reason lies in their collaboration in Afghanistan, where the US has called it quits after failing to tame the Taliban. Experts warn that the onus of keeping Russians away from Pakistan is on India, which must take proactive steps to improve the economic partnership and strengthen the strategic understanding with Russia.
                                                                     
(Pakistan Insights 2020; Editor Tilak Devasher; Publishers Pentagon Press/ Vivekananda International Foundation; Pages 282; Price Rs 895)

(The reviewer is a veteran journalist who writes on diplomacy and politics. He can be contacted at ranjini17@hotmail.com)