India-Pakistan relations comprise seven decades of mutual hostility, conflict and fleeting possibilities for improved ties. The conventional wisdom is that a ‘no war, no peace’ stalemate stabilised through mutual nuclear deterrence is the best available prospect.
Actually, this is not a stable prospect. It involves ongoing costs, including foregone opportunities that weigh more on the smaller country, Pakistan. India can more easily absorb these costs although they may slow down its economic transformation and hamper or even thwart its Great Power aspirations.
For Pakistan, semi-permanent confrontation with India renders the necessary transition from a security state to a development state very difficult. This limits prioritised allocation of resources for human resource development and capacity-building of essential civil and political institutions. As a result, the quality of governance, delivery of socioeconomic justice and political stability are degraded. Pakistan loses and a hostile India gains. Our history confirms this.
To deal with a host of domestic and external challenges converging upon Pakistan, radical and rapid progress on a broad front of issues will be essential. This includes reducing the Indian threat through principled and sensible policies that do not involve sell-outs on any issue. Difficult but possible. India and Pakistan are neighbouring nuclear powers with no room to rectify miscalculations in a crisis. Unfortunately, the constant tension increases the risk of unintended utter disaster.
At present, India and Pakistan are not engaging with each other except for contacts between their national security advisers. Pakistan is prepared for dialogue but India is playing hardball. The fact is that even if structured and comprehensive bilateral dialogue is resumed, progress on the issue of Jammu and Kashmir will be extremely difficult to achieve.
India is the bigger party that is unwilling to alter the territorial status quo in a way that could provide a basis for an eventual settlement acceptable to the Kashmiri people. Nevertheless, even without territorial change, significant progress towards an interim arrangement was made in 2005-2006 through backchannel talks. However, because of domestic developments in both countries and particularly since the Mumbai attacks of 2008, India has become more obdurate than ever.
Meanwhile, Pakistan has allowed itself to be internationally isolated over Afghanistan, terrorism and extremism, as well as concerns over the alleged possibility of unauthorised access to its strategic assets/materials. This has narrowed its diplomatic options and placed it at an even greater disadvantage vis-à-vis India.
How do we move forward? Confrontation and zero-sum games with India do not help. They only play to India’s strengths and exacerbate Pakistan’s vulnerabilities. Instead, a longer-term strategy for détente with India without compromising on the political and human rights of the Kashmiris needs to be thought through in concrete detail. India’s current hostility and obduracy are a given for the time being. Within such parameters a dialogue process sustained by a whole range of new and old confidence-building measures needs to be developed in order to shift the process towards Pakistan’s strengths.
For this to happen, a leadership of vision, integrity and tenacity will be required to educate and inform the public about prevailing realities, and to face opposition and accusations, especially in the likely event of an initial lack of Indian reciprocity. Ultimately, international support for a principled settlement acceptable to Kashmiris, Pakistanis and Indians will require India to respond more positively. It still may not. But if India is denied the excuse of Pakistani provocation, the pressure of international opinion would build on it rather than on Pakistan. This could eventually impact India’s domestic opinion. There is, moreover, no feasible or honest alternative to such a strategy, and the traumatised Kashmiris know it.
This article was published in the Herald's May 2018 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.