The distilled truth of India and Pakistan’s current relationship is that they do not talk to each other, not formally at least. Unlike with China, India has no economic stakes with Pakistan. However, even without an active dialogue process, some shifts can be perceived in India’s priorities. Across the past two decades, the approach to dialogue has usually been dualistic — either focus on fixing the larger bilateral relationship to generate enough goodwill to discuss Kashmir distinctly, or let the latter lead to greater thaws in the ice for the larger relationship.
At present, this duality seems to be unraveling.
Fixing the Bilateral Relationship and Resolving Kashmir
In July 2015, the Indian and Pakistani prime ministers, Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif, met on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit in Ufa, Russia, and agreed to discuss “all outstanding issues.” Notably, the resulting six immediate steps omitted Kashmir, but an expression of intent was on display. Modi pulled his Pakistani counterpart aside during a later multilateral meeting in Paris to test the potential for a formal dialogue process.
In December that year, the national security advisers secretly met in Bangkok to discuss Kashmir and ancillary issues of cross-border terror and infiltration, away from the media glare. A deliberate sequence of events began to play out, generously helped by good fate. The Indian external affairs minister addressed a joint press conference in Islamabad in December 2015, announcing the start of the “Comprehensive Dialogue” – a reincarnation of the erstwhile Composite Dialogue Process (CDP). It was to address 10 issues, including Kashmir. Modi followed up with a much celebrated surprise visit to meet Sharif in Lahore, cheered even by the current Pakistani foreign minister, then in the opposition. Clearly, initiatives on Kashmir were subsumed under prospects of fixing the broader Indo-Pak relationship, treating Kashmir as important but not distinct.
Resolving Kashmir and Fixing the Bilateral Relationship
A decade before the 2015 effort at improving relations, the Composite Dialogue had included Kashmir as part of its eight “baskets” of issues. However, there was a strong focus on Kashmir. All three individuals involved — Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Pervez Musharraf, and Manmohan Singh — evinced a firm determination to resolve the dispute. It was the downstream effect of strong political wills above that made possible a backchannel dedicated to resolving the Kashmir issue below. A sustained effort was made during this period, evident in the mutual desire to keep the backchannel confidential. The drafts produced by this channel then fed into the overt bilateral process, for the state institutions on either side to ratify according to their constitutional mechanisms.
While the CDP focused on outstanding bilateral issues including Siachen, Sir Creek, and impediments to economic cooperation, the covert talks remained strictly focused on Kashmir. This combined process served both India’s and Pakistan’s priorities. It had the larger objective of bringing the relationship on track, while allowing the main resolution of Kashmir to be supplemented by a separate process, couched from any potential political fallout. Then-Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee’s keen efforts to untie the “Gordian knot” of Kashmir went a long way in signaling India’s intentions to accommodate Pakistan’s desire to discuss it, treating Kashmir as important and distinct.
Delinking Kashmir from Indo-Pak Dialogue
The subtle duality highlighted above now seems to be withering, catalyzed by the 2016 and 2019 terror attacks in India, sourced to Pakistan. Benefiting from a generous mandate in the general elections in 2019, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in India affected constitutional changes in Jammu and Kashmir, with the use of force (both political and military). Since then, just as Pakistan has made the reversal of these changes critical to the resumption of dialogue, India has steadily moved farther away.
Even if Pakistan does seem to have recently teased overtures, the BJP in India remains focused on operationalizing Jammu and Kashmir’s integration with India. Part of this focus is on consolidating its own internal political position; the delimitation exercise in the state has been remarked by some as being engineered for the party’s electoral good.
In October 2021, the Indian home minister announced in Jammu and Kashmir that there would be no talks with Pakistan, reiterating it in 2022 while addressing a sizeable rally in Baramulla. He asserted that the government would rather be talking to the Gujjars, Bakarwals, Paharis, and the youth of Kashmir. It is to be seen if Pakistan adopts a combative stand or echoes the likes of Ghulam Nabi Azad and indirectly steps away from demanding the restoration of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status. The Indian position vis-a-vis Pakistan, however, is now clear — Kashmir is not important and not distinct, “move on.”
Given the BJP’s categorical assertions, the resumption of any dialogue has readily been termed unlikely. However, arguably, a BJP victory in the upcoming polls in Kashmir could create more room for a bilateral process in the future. A strong showing in an electoral test (conducted fairly) would add the feather of democratic credibility to the party’s hat, further strengthening its bargaining position with Pakistan. Indeed, following the delimitation exercise, the party has rapidly mobilized in Jammu and Kashmir, reflecting its determination to outmaneuver regional opponents, both old and new. The focus is on building connections with domestic constituents likely to vote for the BJP. This is aided by the renewed Line of Control (LoC) ceasefire, which removes the need to address the border population’s vulnerability to Pakistani firing. Having achieved “victory” in Jammu and Kashmir, the government would have reached closer to a self-defined finality in Kashmir.
It is true that earlier dialogue attempts by the same government have been thwarted by the same persistent derailing element of past processes — terror attacks. In early 2016, the Modi government displayed a willingness to absorb such an attack without letting it disrupt the bilateral relationship and seek Pakistan’s cooperation in the subsequent investigation. However, following the more high-visibility attack in Uri, such willingness rapidly dwindled, eventually leading to the present state of a “non-relationship.”
However, if the nods to peace being made by the outgoing army chief in Pakistan are continued by his successor, then it would be in India’s interest to portray itself as willing to re-engage. Despite Islamabad making recent international forays about Kashmir, drawing Indian ire, it must be noted that Rawalpindi directs and executes policy, and its overtures carry authoritative value. Given India’s priorities in the Indo-Pacific, re-engaging with Pakistan would add more grist to the mill of India being a responsible regional power. Obviously, other variables could further enable, modify, or even disable such outcomes. But the jury for Indo-Pak re-engagement is still out.