India-Pakistan Relations: A 2013 Retrospective and 2014 Prospectus

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2013 wasn’t a great year for India-Pakistan relations (few years are). What defined the year was primarily the marked uptick in the number of cross-border skirmishes involving Pakistani and Indian troops. As early as January, India accused Pakistan of intentionally violating the Line of Control (LoC) that demarcates the administrative territories of each state in the disputed Kashmir region. These violations continued throughout the year and drew sensationalist responses in both countries. Other fiascos, such as the death of Indian soldier Sarabjit Singh in Pakistani custody, did little to improve relations.

When Pakistan’s once-exiled Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in September, few held their breath. Sharif, who was Pakistan’s Prime Minster during the last major conventional war fought between the two countries, the Kargil War, had campaigned on a platform of restoring good ties with India but the timing just wasn’t right. For his part, Manmohan Singh had his hands tied in September after a flurry of cross-border activity in August.

2013 was the year of the skirmishes in many ways. Many perceived Pervez Musharraf’s fall from power and the rise of civilian power in Pakistan as setting the stage for a burgeoning thaw, but the Pakistani military just didn’t allow that to happen. Manmohan Singh was right when he said that the skirmishes would prevent “business as usual” between India and Pakistan.

Looking forward to 2014, there are few reasons to be optimistic. Certain analysts have expressed hope that Pakistan’s shedding of its old triumvirate of leaders – Ali Asif Zardari to Nawaz Sharif as Prime Minister, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani to General Raheel Sharif as Chief of Army Staff, and Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudry to Tassaduq Hussain Jillani as Chief Justice – might precipitate an atmosphere more conducive to normalizing ties. These readings of India-Pakistan relations put the onus (correctly, I think) on General Raheel Sharif, who many expect will reign in the Pakistan military and turn its sights inwards, on the extremist militant threat to Islamabad’s government emerging from the tribal areas.

I was less sanguine on the Kayani-Sharif switch. As I wrote then:

The reasons for skepticism run deeper than personalities and individual preferences. The Pakistani military practices a relatively static form of outward strategic planning, to its immediate east and to its immediate west. Since independence in 1947, Pakistan has been locked in a rivalry with India that takes on a position of existential importance for the Pakistan military establishment. To this end, the army and the ISI have gone to extreme lengths to wrangle with India over the disputed northern province of Kashmir, fighting three all-out conventional wars in the process and numerous skirmishes per year. In the months leading up to Kayani’s retirement, the number of skirmishes between India and Pakistan increased to new heights, all against the backdrop of Nawaz Sharif’s rather meek attempts to foment a bilateral peace dialogue. Ostensibly, the army’s rather direct involvement derailed Sharif’s attempts by transforming the Indian domestic political climate as wholly unreceptive to engagement with Pakistan.

General Raheel Sharif could challenge this long-held strategic dogma within the Pakistan military establishment, but in doing so, he would have to surmount over 60 years of institutional inertia. There are encouraging signs, however. One retired Pakistani officer, speaking with Reuters, said that “Sharif has played a big role in convincing the army that the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and assorted militants inside Pakistan are as big a threat (as India).” The major obstacle for Pakistan in 2014 – which will have implications for its relationship with India – is the state of its fragile relationship with the United States.

While 2013 was Pakistan’s year of transition, India’s turn comes with 2014. I’m not a betting man, but after witnessing the Indian National Congress’ thrashing across the nation in the recent assembly elections, I wouldn’t bat an eye should we see the Hindu nationalist BJP back on top in New Delhi, with controversial strong-man Narendra Modi at its helm. A perfunctory glance at Modi’s track-record on Pakistan and India-Pakistan relations might suggest that he would be a hot-blooded reactionary, ready to meet Pakistani aggression in kind. However, his diagnosis of the poor state of India-Pakistan relations in 2013 mostly boiled down to “political dysfunction” in New Delhi – a jab at the Congress Party incumbents.

What is encouraging is that despite his image as an irascible realpolitik man, Modi has expressed admiration for the foreign policy practices of Atal Behari Vajpayee, India’s only other BJP Prime Minister. He praised Vajpayee for his exercise of both strength and restraint when the moment called for it – in Modi’s words, a balance between shanti (peace) and shakti (power).

What worries me about Modi are his recent statements on Kashmir which Ram Mashru, a Pulse contributor, explored in greater detail for The Diplomat. Any attempt by the Indian government to reignite a national political debate about the final status of Indian Kashmir could stoke fears in Pakistan, particularly in the military. Currently, the administrative arrangement with the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir allows for a degree of autonomy that keeps the dispute from spiraling out of control. New Delhi has historically intended to resolve the Kashmir dispute on a bilateral basis with Pakistan; unilateral steps to alter the status quo prior to even attempting diplomacy could be deleterious to stability and the trajectory of a broader India-Pakistan thaw. Even if a revision of Article 370 won’t be something Modi tries to bring up in his first hundred days in office, it could be the ace up his sleeve in fanning the flames of Indian nationalism.

Predicting the future in South Asia (or anywhere for that matter) is a perilous pastime, but 2014 promises to be an exciting year for bilateral relations between New Delhi and Islamabad. I’d put some weight on the early months of next year as they will largely condition the disposition of the next government in New Delhi towards Pakistan. As India heads to the polls next May, Pakistan would do well to cease any violations of the LoC and maintain the détente that seems to have been taking hold since October.

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