Since the terror attack on an Indian paramilitary convoy at Pulwama in Kashmir in February 2019, India-Pakistan relations have deteriorated seriously. In the weeks after the attack, the two sides carried out air strikes against each other, downgraded diplomatic ties and suspended trade agreements. Relations have not improved since, and backchannel discussions reportedly ran aground last year.
Amid this rather bleak bilateral scenario, Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif recently expressed interest in “serious and sincere talks” with India. In India, Sharif’s offer has been viewed with skepticism. Is this an attempt at deflecting attention away from Pakistan’s multiple crises at home? Is the Pakistani military on board?
Throwing light on Sharif’s offer for talks with India, Husain Haqqani, a senior fellow and director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute and Diplomat-in-Residence at Anwar Gargash Diplomatic Academy in Abu Dhabi, told The Diplomat’s South Asia editor Sudha Ramachandran that Sharif understands that normalizing ties with India will benefit the Pakistani economy. But to get the military on board, Sharif needs a “face-saver on Kashmir,” said Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States and author of “India vs Pakistan: Why Can’t We Just Be Friends?”
What underlies Sharif’s recent offer for “serious and sincere” talks with India?
Every Pakistani civilian prime minister seems to understand the need for better relations with India. It is now widely recognized among Pakistanis that the country’s multiple crises are, to a large extent, a consequence of conflict-ridden relations with India. For example, Pakistan can’t expect economic growth without opening trade with its largest neighbor. This understanding was articulated by Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leader Nawaz Sharif long ago.
As Pakistan’s economic crises deepen, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif [Nawaz’s brother] seems to understand that the better relations are between India and Pakistan, the better it will be for Pakistan. But he heads a relatively weak coalition government, and he must contend with Imran Khan sniping at his heels. Shahbaz Sharif is also mindful of the Pakistan military’s reluctance to normalize relations with India without getting a face-saver on Kashmir.
So, his offer of “serious and sincere” talks with India reflects his understanding of the big picture but it is accompanied by hints to Indian leaders of “Please understand my compulsions, too.” His recent offer was made in the hope that opening talks with India would help ease some of the economic pressure on the country.
While offering talks to India, Sharif mentioned “burning issues like Kashmir where flagrant human rights are taking place” and India’s revocation of Kashmir’s autonomy. However, statements by the Imran Khan government, Gen Bajwa when he was army chief, and reports of back-channel discussions between the two countries indicate that Article 370 is not an issue for Pakistan anymore. What is the Sharif government’s position in this regard?
Kashmir is an emotive issue in Pakistan, and civilian leaders are often wary about any hint of compromise being described as “selling out” by their opponents. Further, the Pakistani military establishment has made it clear time and again that Kashmir is a redline for them. It is therefore natural that Shehbaz Sharif publicly refers to the need to place the Kashmir issue front and center on the table. Once discussions begin, Islamabad (or Rawalpindi) may be willing to work around the ground realities.
But that is clearly not India’s vision. There is no international pressure on India that favors the Pakistani position, and even if there was some, India would resist it. Moreover, just as Pakistan insists on Kashmir being the key issue, cross-border terrorism is the key question for India. If the Shehbaz Sharif government made a serious offer on the issue of terrorism, he could get the talks he wants. As things stand, there seems to be no forward movement after the initial “We want serious and sincere talks” statement.
There have been reports that in the backchannel discussions, Pakistan was even willing to “freeze the Kashmir issue” for 20 years. Would that be doable or acceptable to the Pakistani security establishment?
This is something India has often offered in the past and asked for a resumption of normal trade and diplomatic relations while the emotive issues are frozen. Most of the world sees this as a reasonable approach. The Pakistani security establishment has historically been unwilling to allow the Kashmir issue to be put on the backburner. It remains to be seen whether the current Pakistani security establishment, which is dealing with an economic crisis, challenges in Afghanistan, and a worsening internal security situation, will be willing to freeze the Kashmir issue.
Even if that is the case, a win-win outcome would have to be created. Unfortunately, domestic politics in both countries make a backchannel deal based on pragmatism difficult. Each side wants to be able to proclaim victory.
Reports in the Pakistani media late last year suggested that the military is changing as an institution, and that it is pulling back from a political role. Any changes in its positions regarding India and Kashmir?
The Pakistan army is doing what it has often done in the past. When public sentiment turns against the army’s role in politics, the army pulls back to tamp public anger and resentment. But that does not change the military’s primacy in Pakistan. It is an institution deeply entrenched in politics, society, economy, and foreign policy. So, we are seeing a lowering of public profile. But there is little indication that these events reflect any deep-seated strategic rethink within the Pakistani security establishment concerning its role in Pakistan. The army is still Pakistan’s largest functioning institution and it sees itself as the ultimate guarantor of the country’s continued existence and security.
Do you expect anything to come out of Sharif’s talks offer? Both countries are due to vote in general elections in some months.
Pakistan is due for general elections in 2023 and India’s general elections are due in 2024. It is rare for public talks to start before general elections in either country. The ruling parties on both sides will not want the opposition to attack them for negotiating poorly. That said, Prime Minister Modi might want an amicable settlement with Pakistan to be his legacy. He could still sell it to the Indian public as an investment in long-term peace and prosperity. While that cannot be ruled out, I have not seen anything that suggests that Prime Minister Sharif’s statement has gone beyond being a one-off statement and become the foundation of a new policy.
If Sharif’s offer of talks makes progress and talks begin, what in your opinion should India and Pakistan do differently this time?
India and Pakistan know what each country needs to do to resolve the deep-seated issues. Pakistan needs to reassure India about terrorism and India needs to be less dismissive of Pakistan’s concerns about Kashmir. But there is a reason why there has been no resolution of India-Pakistan issues. The heads of the two countries have met 45 times over the last 75 years for talks, the last time in December 2015. Indians and Pakistanis, who share centuries of history and only 75 years of partition, are emotional people. If India and Pakistan keep emotions out of it and approach their problems logically, there is room for advancing the relationship. Freezing the Kashmir dispute while improving the lives and status of Kashmiris, working together on tackling terrorism, ensuring an end to negative propaganda and actions against each other, and starting small, with opening trade and travel between the two countries could be a logical framework for peace.