India continues to spurn peace overtures by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government. Last week, Islamabad shared a draft agreement with New Delhi on the Kartarpur Corridor. It also requested India to send its delegation to Islamabad for talks to finalise the agreement that would allow Sikhs from India to visit the Shrine of Baba Guru Nanak without visa. But the Modi government, instead of responding to the initiative, made a counter-proposal asking Pakistan to send its delegation to New Delhi for talks. The Foreign Office here termed India’s response childish. However, the Foreign Office spokesperson made it clear that despite India’s obduracy, Pakistan’s response would be ‘mature and well considered’.
India’s approach clearly suggests that the Modi administration is not serious about having any engagement with Pakistan at least before the parliamentary elections across the border. Pakistan has gone out of the way on Kartarpur initiative despite lukewarm Indian response. Initially, India thought that Pakistan’s announcement to open the Kartarpur corridor was just rhetoric. But in November last year, Prime Minister Imran Khan formally launched the ground-breaking of the corridor. India sent two ministers while former Test cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu attended the ceremony as special guest.
Doubts still persisted as to whether this proposal would ever be implemented given the current state of relationship between the two countries. But Pakistan once again proved that it was keen to make the corridor operational on the 550th birth anniversary of Baba Guru Nanak in November this year when it formally shared the draft agreement and invited India for talks.
That puts the Indian government in a difficult situation. Given that Sikh community across the border is excited and looking forward to the opening of the Kartarpur Corridor, the Indian government cannot simply brush aside Pakistan’s initiative. But the Modi government feels that sending a delegation to Pakistan may give a wrong signal to the domestic audience particularly to the right- wing Hindu groups. At the same time saying ‘no’ to Pakistan’s offer will certainly invite strong reaction from Sikh voters. It is because of this reason that India tried to outsmart Pakistan by making a counter-proposal. If Pakistan does not agree to it, the Modi government would say ‘look who is backtracking’. And if, for example, Pakistan does send its delegation to New Delhi, the Indian government would take the credit for the Kartarpur initiative — something that may help boost its vote bank among the Sikh community.
But irrespective of who gains what, this episode clearly shows how much ground both Pakistan and India have lost because of the tense ties for the past many years. The two neighbours now even fight over the venue of talks on the Kartarpur Corridor, an otherwise humanitarian gesture that should have been finalised without any hitch. This is all because of widening trust deficit between the two neighbours. And when there is no or little communication between the two sides, this trust deficit widens further. There is no doubt that the Pakistan-India relationship is an intricate one. But this does not mean that the two countries cannot address or at least reduce the trust deficit. For this they require greater engagement. From 2004 to 2009, Pakistan and India had a sustained period of dialogue process. There were meetings at the official as well as at the highest levels. But it was all due to the ground work done by the two sides through backchannel or quiet diplomacy.
Prime Minister Imran Khan has repeatedly expressed his government’s desire to mend fences with India since taking charge in August. But his initiative has not been reciprocated by the other side. Perhaps, the two sides need to revive the backchannel diplomacy in order to arrest a further slide in ties.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 28th, 2019.