India and Pakistan: Will there be a spring in ties?

As those who follow the India-Pakistan dynamic would know, there are two aspects to this relationship, often diametrically at odds with each other. A neutral observer would not know where the truth lies - perhaps, in between

Tarun Basu Mar 13, 2018
Representational Photo

When K Natwar Singh was Minister of State for External Affairs in Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s government in the late 1980s, he made a poignant remark that has become an apt metaphor for the chronically feuding ties between India and Pakistan. Singh, formerly Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan who became Secretary in the foreign ministry, said India-Pakistan relations will always remain “accident prone;” every time there is an apparent upswing something will happen to derail them to their normal fractious state. 

Years later, J N Dixit, another former High Commissioner who became Foreign Secretary and National Security Adviser, remarked on the “incongruity of it all” in India-Pakistan relations. Their “curious history” and “cyclical patterns” would confound both practitioners of realpolitik, high diplomacy and the hapless people of two countries who have been condemned to live in a state of habitual political tension, cross-border killings of soldiers and civilians and a general state of uncertainty about the future of the subcontinent. 

Many books have been written on these “terrible (incompatible) twins” of the Indian subcontinent – but a book likely to stand out from the rest is “The People Next Door/The Curious History of Relations,” by a veteran diplomat and envoy to Islamabad, T C A Raghavan, who has spent a decade dealing with the country while donning various hats. The book stands out for its microscopic research and the rich anecdotal tapestry that weaves through the narrative.  

For a diplomatic observer who has been witness to several of the numerous twists and turns in the India-Pakistan discourse and has often been both elated and depressed over developments, some of the iconic images of this engagement will always be those between leaders of both countries - whether in New Delhi, Islamabad, New York, Davos or Ufa in Russia - and the hopes these meetings elicited in their peoples. However, each time such an event happened, either a war, a terror attack, or even a hijack would bring ties back to their old, inimical state. 

Many prime ministers, seized with a sense of history and their place in it, have sought to create fresh openings and even risk their political capital in the quest for sub-continental peace, but have been rebuffed by these ‘accidents’, whether ordained or ordered. As Raghavan states, somewhat matter of fact: “ every decade numerous individuals saw the immediate future of India-Pakistan ties with a great deal of realistic optimism. Events proved them wrong on each occasion.”

Quoting Natwar Singh, Raghavan says, “the future of India-Pakistan relations lies in the past” and it is only through a thorough and careful study of the history of the subcontinent can one understand “why India-Pakistan history took the course it did". The author makes it clear that his attempt was to write an “animated and anecdotal history” - from both New Delhi’s and Islamabad’s perspective - “with all its oddities and curiosities” interspersed cleverly to make a highly readable panorama of one of the world’s most enigmatic, confounding and yet most inflammable bilateral relationships.

As those who follow the India-Pakistan dynamic would know, there are two aspects to this relationship, often diametrically at odds with each other. A neutral observer would not know where the truth lies - perhaps, in between. Even in the narrative of one country, there are perspectives at odds, especially in Pakistan, when the civilian version has often been contra to the military view of a particular incident; the Kargil conflict being the most salient of them. 

As Stephen Cohen, in his seminal work on “The Pakistan Army” noted, the Pakistan Army “always regarded itself as the special expression of the idea of Pakistan”. Because the military continues to hold one rein of political power, it continues to exercise its right and influence by what Cohen calls “injecting directly into the Pakistan foreign-policy-making process” its “partial perspectives on foreign affairs”.      
This policy dissonance, particularly on India, was most noticeable after the Kargil misadventure by Pakistan that quickly dissipated the euphoria generated by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s bus ride to Lahore in February 1999.  The army and the civilian leadership spoke at cross-purposes which made then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif remark that “Musharraf has landed us in a terrible mess.” 

Pervez Musharraf, then Pakistan’s army chief who soon ousted Sharif from power, sought to blame Sharif for the Pakistani military debacle, saying he had known about it and sanctioned it. The truth probably lay in between, with both misjudging Indian resilience and its ability to fight back and give the enemy a bloody nose.    
Musharraf was keen to put his name in history as one who delivered Pakistan - in war or peace. He initiated Kargil to derail the Lahore agreement between Vajpayee and Sharif but made the maximum advances on reaching a solution on Kashmir with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. 

Although these were conducted through what was called the “back channel”, according to Raghavan, “carried out between representatives of Prime Minister Singh and President Musharraf, it was the most intensive discussion that had taken place on Kashmir to date between India and Pakistan.”   

Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri, Pakistan’s foreign minister during the Musharraf years, said the outcome of these discussions, known as Musharraf’s four-point proposal on resolution of the Kashmir issue, has been the only “workable solution” that was likely to find acceptance among “70 per cent” of Kashmiris, Pakistanis and Indians. 

As the agreement neared finalisation in 2007, the process was overtaken by political developments in Pakistan that led to Musharraf’s downfall. Kasuri thinks that “at a propitious time, it can be taken up again by governments on both sides… this is the only workable solution,” he maintains.      

Musharraf’s detractors soon disavowed his “Kashmir proposal” and his commitments to Vajpayee in January 2004, that Pakistani soil would not be used for terror attacks against India was seen as “Musharraf’s defeatism” - a tacit admission that Pakistan was indeed using its territory as a strategic instrument of the country’s foreign policy.  

Indian leaders have also tried to transcend history and bring about change, undeterred by “past failures or by the prophets of pessimism”. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the latest of those attempting to make a new beginning. Raghavan, as Indian envoy in Islamabad, learnt very late about Modi’s plan to make an unscheduled stopover in Lahore on his way from Kabul to Delhi on December 25, 2015, drove down from Islamabad just in time to meet Modi. However, the same failings; lack of institutional preparation, ground realities being at odds with personal diplomacy and the civilian leadership in Pakistan lacking the mandate to take crucial decisions vis-a-vis India; overtook the initiative. 

In fact, there have been fewer and fewer cycles of normal relations. Each time there has been some glimmer of hope, it has been dashed by an incident that has been almost prophetic in its certainty. 

Will there be a spring in India-Pakistan ties? Not too likely, is Raghavan’s verdict. But as a caveat, he says fast changing global geopolitics could impact, at some point, on entrenched orthodoxies. 

Observers of South Asia mention that India’s recent “diplomatic and economic strengths” have often given a “new twist to old rules” by allowing it to launch cross-LoC raids without any international objections.

However, without a change in the power structure in Pakistan, giving civilian governments the mandate to take decisions vis a vis India and a broader vision of bilateral ties in the larger context of South Asia, it will be foolhardy to expect real change in the dysfunctional ties between the hostile neighbours, particularly as both countries head toward crucial national elections. 

(Tarun Basu is a veteran journalist and President, Society for Policy Studies. Views are personal. He can be contacted at

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