By Salman Bashir
A narrow window of opportunity to restore a degree of normalcy in Pakistan-India relations has arrived with the induction of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government and Imran Khan as Prime Minister. This was indeed anticipated, but the opportunity only lasts until the end of this year, which is when India will become engrossed in its own general elections, which will take place in 2019.
The key determinant will be the domestic political situation in India. If Prime Minister Narendra Modi senses that his political fortune could best be made by following an anti-Pakistan agenda, after some pro forma gestures, he may persist with his government’s hard line against Islamabad.
Indian politicians, apart from the late Atal Bihari Vajpayee, have generally been reluctant to invest any political capital in improving relations with Pakistan. This was true of Sonia Gandhi, who did not allow the Congress Party to really square up behind Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who truly wanted to write a new chapter in India-Pakistan relations.
The foreign ministries on both sides are well rehearsed in scripting impossible language and diplomatic jargon in the mistaken belief that they will not allow the other a one-up. This smacks more of insecurity and a lack of confidence, not of courage of conviction. So, at the second tier, it is the diplomats who make sure that nothing moves forward.
Whenever some movement was made in bilateral relations, it was steered from the top. Indian politicians and the establishment had placed their hopes on Nawaz Sharif and were extremely critical of Khan. The latter’s electoral victory caused shockwaves in India and the media went berserk, creating virtual panic on the implications of PTI’s victory. They alleged Khan was hand in glove with the Taliban and terrorists. At worst, they said he was a product of the Pakistan military, which was bent on undoing India.
These fears have now been put to rest by Khan and Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi. In his victory speech, Khan signaled a readiness to engage, saying that, if India takes one step, Pakistan will take two to mend relations. He also expressed a desire to normalize trade relations with India, which is a very substantive gesture.
Qureshi is an old hand at diplomacy and is deeply committed to bettering relations with India. In his first press interaction after taking the oath of office, the foreign minister underscored the importance the government has attached to improving relations with India. He spoke of the need for uninterrupted dialogue, including on resolving the Kashmir issue.
Khan also used Twitter to call for dialogue with India over opening up trade and reviving regional cooperation. He reiterated that “without peace our people cannot progress.” He added: “To move forward, Pakistan and India must dialogue and resolve their conflicts, including Kashmir… The best way to alleviate poverty and uplift the people of the subcontinent is to resolve our differences through dialogue and start trading.”
Qureshi has stated: “Us coming to the table and talking peace is our only option. We need to stop the adventurism and come together. We know the issues are tough and will not be solved overnight, but we have to engage… We need a continued and uninterrupted dialogue. This is the only way forward.” He added: “We may have a different approach and line of thinking, but I want to see a change in how we behave. India and Pakistan have to move forward, keeping realities before them.”
The new foreign minister also dismissed fears that attempts to mend fences with India will be met with resistance from the so-called establishment. “There are preconceived notions about where the foreign policy of Pakistan was formulated,” he said. “Let me be clear: The foreign policy will be made here — at the Foreign Office of Pakistan. I will engage with all the institutions for the betterment of the country. It is the policy across the world. Feedback is sought from national security institutions.”
For several months now, the Pakistani military has been signaling its support for an improvement in relations with India. Army Chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa has been supportive of a normalization of relations.
Peace with India is the mainstream view in Pakistan, but it is not yet so in India. The controversy over the foreign minister’s press remarks, where he said that Modi’s letter to Khan was positive about dialogue, was quickly rebutted by India’s Ministry of External Affairs. A quick correction was made in Islamabad that “engagement,” not “dialogue,” was the word used by Modi. If the MEA defends India’s interests by such finicky diplomacy, then the chances of any major breakthrough will be minimal. On the other hand, Pakistan is now in a much better position to work for regional peace and prosperity.
(Salman Bashir is a Pakistani diplomat who served as the Foreign Secretary of Pakistan and Ambassador to China, India and Denmark. Twitter: @SalmanB_Isb)
By Salman Bashir