The war environment that Indian Prime Minster Narendra Modi was trying to evolve turned out still-born. Strategically, the war has been won by Pakistan even before it could start in the real sense—sustained shooting match. Indian attempt was essentially an overreach. India was trying to behave like the US; like many earlier such endeavours, dream once again went sour. It does not mean that Modi will go into self-reappraisal recess; for, he is not cut-out for such a mature role. He will continue to feel itchy, at least till India’s upcoming general election. So, tense period of three months is the least agony that people of the two countries should brace up for.
India got the befitting reply within a day when the Pakistan Air Force struck six targets inside India without crossing the Line of Control (LoC), and also shot down two Indian Air Force aircraft, one of the pilot, a senior IAF officer, who became a prisoner of war has since been released as a goodwill gesture. Mission by the PAF was tactical in terms of resource employment but strategic in terms of effects. Because of this capability demonstrator undertaking, Pakistan’s stature stands elevated and now, for quite some time, Pakistan will be taken at strategic parity viz-a-viz India. A much needed equalizer came as a side benefit of Indian hubris. Thank you Modi!
Traditionally, Pakistan-India bilateral relationship is constituted by a combination of animosity, zero-sum game, and an obsession of distrust. There are no problems between the two countries that cannot be solved through dialogue. The basic discourse which pervades Indo-Pak relations is whether specific disputes must first be solved before true normalization can be achieved or whether individual disputes are more easily resolved in an overall atmosphere of mutual trust and cooperation.
In short to medium term, relations between India and Pakistan are likely to maintain a bumpy trajectory, akin to roller coaster. In terms of progress it would be one step forward and two backwards. If persistent and consistent effort is made by the leadership of both sides to resolve flashpoint disputes and strengthen bilateral crisis management mechanism, then one can hope for evolution of sustainably stable relationship in long term timeframe. India and Pakistan, by all standards, are adequately placed to create and sustain, among themselves, an environment of peace and cooperation. However, unfortunately, this relationship is perpetually on tenterhooks, ready to ignite, like a tinderbox on the mildest pretext. On the outbreak of any crisis, first thing that happens is breakdown of communications, followed by India’s rapid climb on escalatory ladder to a level just a rung or two below actual shooting level, from where neither further climb is tenable nor a graceful descent is viable.
India and Pakistan have locked their horns over water disputes, rising frequency of referral of water issues to international dispute management structures under the Indus Water Treaty speaks volumes about inadequacy and fragility of bilateral conflict resolution capacity. Territorial disputes have been allowed to ferment; these have in turn gathered immense political baggage, hence making any bilateral bold initiative unlikely.
Kashmir continues to simmer. No meaningful peace initiative between India and Pakistan can stand for itself if the Kashmir issue is circumvented. However, India is in no mood to cede space. There has been a persistent Indian campaign to malign the freedom struggle of Kashmiri people by equating it with international terrorism. Most of the incidents of violence which take place in Indian-occupied Kashmir are promptly projected as acts of terrorism and are blamed on Pakistan. Another finger pointing towards Pakistan is on the count of cross border infiltrations. Both of these do not stand the test of scrutiny.
India must stop sponsoring the terrorist acts and separatist elements in Pakistan. In the overall context, however, the absolute necessity of a cooperative effort to fight terror is clear. This would involve effective institutional arrangements for intelligence sharing, border controls, effective joint anti-terror mechanisms and so on. On Afghanistan issue, Pakistan has a vital stake in how the issue is resolved, while India’s interest in Afghanistan is questionable. The Afghan problem has the potential of adversely impacting Indo-Pakistan relations; if it is allowed to become an additional point of discord between the two, it could retard progress in other domains as well.
Both need to show to the international community that they are responsible nuclear powers and pose no threat to the region or the world. There already exists an agreement on non-attack on each other’s facilities. The area of agreement could be expanded. To avoid nuclear arms proliferation, both countries could undertake not to build and deploy ABM systems. For settling nuclear issues, India needs to take Pakistan’s concerns regarding conventional arms asymmetry seriously.
Offer of Strategic Restraints Regime from Pakistan side is still on the table and offers viable options. Both are adhering to voluntary unilateral ban on nuclear testing, it could be turned into a formal agreement underwritten by permanent members of UNSC. Pakistan also stands firm on signing Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, concurrently with India.
As of now, Pakistan-India relationship is erratic; it needs an urgent and bold course correction. It needs to be managed in a professional way, circumventing the emotive pitfalls and historic baggage.
Relationship is rather complex, and while suggesting a way forward there is always a risk of either over-simplification or overstatement. Overall, there is a need to enhance the crisis management capacity at bilateral level, focused on how can dialogue be made the sole and continuous method and how can its derailment by single, unexpected event, be avoided. A task easier said than done!
—The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.