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The India-Pakistan Game: New Delhi Should Keep Playing to Win

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The India-Pakistan Game: New Delhi Should Keep Playing to Win

India can use its advantage to extract enduring political gains from Islamabad.  

The India-Pakistan Game: New Delhi Should Keep Playing to Win

Guards stand at attention during the Wagah border closure ceremony on the border of India and Pakistan.

Credit: Depositphotos

The India-Pakistan relationship went into virtual dormancy in 2019. Since then, both states have been on divergent trajectories: India’s agency to influence global events has increased, just as Pakistan’s has decreased.

In recent times, there has been some advocacy for Indian non-engagement with Pakistan. This includes a recent article on this platform rationalizing India’s limited appetite for diplomacy with Pakistan. While this is true, I argue that it is this imbalance of agencies that should push India to engage Pakistan in the longer term – not on moral considerations, but in recognition of New Delhi’s stronger bargaining position. India can use its advantage to extract enduring political gains from Islamabad.

Pakistan’s abject economic distress is being compounded by a fierce internal security threat from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), at a time when the Afghan Taliban are testing Pakistan’s patience at the Durand Line. Politically, former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s street power is probing the present politico-military establishment’s resolve everyday. This perfect storm has led to a discernible reduction in Pakistan’s ability to wield its geopolitical influence, and hence attract international attention on disputes with India.

However, the permanence of geography allows Pakistan to retain some agency in bilateral ties. Notably, the Pakistan Army has adhered to the renewed ceasefire at the Line of Control (LoC) since February 2021, despite opportunities to probe India during the latter’s skirmishes with China at the Line of Actual Control. This is significant considering that key Pakistan-facing units of the Indian Army have now pivoted to face China, effectively bringing the balance of forces at the LoC relatively closer to parity. Indian General Manoj Naravane, who oversaw this shift as the then-army chief, recently confirmed that reassuring Pakistan was part of New Delhi’s rationale for the rebalance.

Pakistan also remains the primary external player in Afghanistan by virtue of its long shared border. Additionally, while the United States’ strategic focus in the region has shifted from Afghanistan to the Indo-Pacific, Washington still retains a working relationship with Pakistan. While this relationship has not translated into a bank of good faith that the IMF can lean on to bail out Pakistan, like it did historically, the United States still remains a viable partner to the crisis-ridden but nuclear weapons bearing state.

Compared to Pakistan, India is moving in the opposite direction. India is witnessing substantial economic growth, is maneuvering through the fallout of the Russia-Ukraine war reasonably well, and has presented itself as a reliable partner in the emerging geopolitical order of the Indo-Pacific with both regional and extra-regional states eager to boost bilateral ties. Since 2019 India has proved its ability to maintain a strictly transactional “minimal” relationship with Pakistan, without diplomatic or economic contact, as observed by Happymon Jacob of Jawaharlal Nehru University.

The resultant increase in India’s geopolitical agency, diplomatic challenges notwithstanding, has enabled New Delhi to force its preferences on Pakistan. This has manifested especially in New Delhi’s strategy of “escalating to de-escalate.” In particular, India escalated (in Pakistan’s eyes), by abrogating Jammu and Kashmir’s special constitutional status and withdrawing statehood. In the years since, India has implemented its desired political and administrative changes in Kashmir, while consistently denying Pakistan any room to re-direct international focus on the issue. The eventual restoration of statehood (as the Indian home minister has publicly committed to) will come as a de-escalatory step, which, when combined with Pakistan’s failure to influence India’s actions thus far, shall push Islamabad more toward reconciling with the new position.

Similarly, having completed the Kishenganga dam, India now looks to open the Indus Water Treaty for negotiations and remove third party involvement in key aspects of the treaty. The World Bank’s peculiar conduct of running two parallel dispute resolution tracks instead of a graded mechanism adds to India’s rationale.

Notwithstanding the outcome of these efforts, it is India’s heightened sense of agency that now allows New Delhi to engage with Pakistan from a position of strength.

Unlike earlier state-threatening crises that Pakistan has maneuvered through, the present predicament has been brought about not by a specific watershed event, but by systemic flaws in the state, whose cumulative effects are forcing it to structurally re-orient its foreign policy. The assertive, even if presently just cosmetic, push toward “geoeconomics” shows Pakistan’s recognition of the unreliability of its traditional militarism in foreign policy.

This has not changed, even if the politico-military leadership has. The implied desire for stable ties with India (the usual hostile rhetoric notwithstanding) in Pakistan’s National Security Policy released under Khan has been vigorously sought even by new Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif (who has called for dialogue thrice within nine months in office).

India has already established itself as a leading force in the Global South without engaging with Pakistan. Hence, the present state of minimal ties works for New Delhi. However, should Pakistan’s overtures for dialogue continue, supplemented by structural pressures, India shall be presented with a unique opportunity to decisively foreclose the threat from its Western border – should the space for meaningful dialogue present itself after elections in both states. That India has not removed the potential for dialogue and is aware of the effects of geopolitical shifts is best evident in the February 2021 DGMO joint statement in which both sides committed to discussing each other’s “core issues and concerns.”

Hence, India should incrementally open up to Pakistan through the restoration of trade and official ties, and proceed toward larger dispute resolution while the present imbalance in geopolitical agencies persists. At a time when the threat from its eastern neighbor is dominating India’s security calculus, it would be strategically myopic for New Delhi to walk away instead of playing to secure its wins with its western neighbor.