India-Pakistan Ties: Domestic Politics and External Players
Photo Credit: Reuters
By Tridivesh Singh Maini

India-Pakistan Ties: Domestic Politics and External Players

Mar. 06, 2018  |     |  0 comments

Bilateral ties between India and Pakistan have been on a consistent downward spiral since 2016. While there has been back-channel engagement between their National Security Advisors from time to time, hostilities have persisted across the Line of Control (LOC) and the gains of the 2003 ceasefire seem to have been lost.

In this context, some recent developments have been important, raising renewed hope that both countries are looking at a revival of engagement, which could play a positive role in cooling the temperatures across the LOC as well as transforming the overall narrative.

In the past year and a half, New Delhi, which has avoided participation in multilateral meetings with Pakistan, seems to have shed its objections. On February 23, 2018, for instance, India participated in the ground-breaking ceremony of the TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) gas pipeline at Serhetabad, Turkmenistan. India was represented by MJ Akbar, Minister of State for External Affairs. During his speech, Akbar dubbed India’s efforts as “a symbol of our goals” and “a new page in cooperation.” India has also extended an invitation to the Pakistani Commerce Minister Pervaiz Malik to participate in the informal World Trade Organization ministerial meeting taking place in Delhi on March 19-20. Apart from the above important steps, both sides are also planning to exchange elderly, mentally ill, and female prisoners as a goodwill gesture.

All these steps are encouraging, since an absolute breakdown of engagement only leads to an increase in tensions. In the past, whenever both countries engaged each other pro-actively (2004-07 and 2011-14), there was a lowering of tensions, although of course elements inimical to peace sabotaged such efforts. What is really needed however is statesmanship on both sides to impose a ceasefire. Given the state of flux in Pakistan, this is unlikely, and it remains to be seen whether Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be favorably disposed towards such a move.

Domestic Politics

As always, domestic politics will play a key role in shaping bilateral relations. General elections will be held in June 2018 in Pakistan. India will hope that the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N) emerges victorious, since the party — especially former PM and President Nawaz Sharif — has made efforts to improve ties with India. In fact, one of the major reasons for the rift between the Pakistani army and Nawaz Sharif was the latter’s keenness to strengthen ties with India.

In spite of a series of blows including the removal of Sharif from the post of President, the party seems to be on a high. One reiteration of the same was PML-N’s win in the Lodhran (NA-154) by-election. The seat was earlier held by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). The victor Iqbal Shah defeated Ali Tareen, the son of the PTI’s general secretary Jahangir Tareen. The PML-N has on more than one occasion stated that this indicates the groundswell in its favor. Nawaz Sharif, while thanking party workers, has said: “You have proven that decisions are made by voters’ thumbs not the umpire’s finger … You have restored the sanctity and respect of the vote.” Sharif was recently declared Quaid (leader) for life of the PML-N, while his brother Shahbaz Sharif, current Chief Minister of Punjab and the party’s PM candidate, was declared as its Interim President.

On the Indian side, PM Modi will have limited capital to take any significant steps. While India would hope that Pakistan takes action against terror groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jamaat-Ud Da’wah (JuD), Modi on his part will have to go against the current media narrative which has left very little space for engagement. He is also not likely to receive support from the opposition Congress, which would like to bolster its nationalist credentials and send a message that it is equally tough on national security issues. The party has criticized the PM for his inability to prevent repeated terror attacks in Kashmir.

It remains to be seen whether any imaginative initiatives to cool the LOC can be taken before the installation of a new government.

With a slew of state elections and general elections in India only a year away, it remains to be seen whether Modi makes any overtures towards Pakistan, although surprise is an element of his diplomacy. Incremental steps, especially goodwill gestures as well as greater engagement at multilateral forums, cannot be ruled out. It is also necessary to de-link serious foreign policy challenges from the domestic election cycle.

It also remains to be seen whether India will reach out to the Pakistani army to lower the temperatures on the LOC. An Indian Army General, while addressing a seminar, has spoken about the option of military diplomacy to achieve the above objective. He said, “In Pakistan, military’s writ runs. Therefore, sooner or later, we have to talk to their military. I am convinced that on our side also, military diplomacy plays a very important role. Therefore, there has to be a greater role to military diplomacy so that the militaries of the two nations can work with each other and bring about greater confidence in each other and we can go forward.”

It remains to be seen whether any imaginative initiatives to cool the LOC can be taken before the installation of a new government. Taking a step like the ceasefire of 2003 will require statesmanship and out-of-the-box thinking.

External Players

Beyond domestic politics, a lot will also depend on the external powers in the region. The US is already pressurizing Pakistan to take action against terror groups targeting India, including the culprits of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. China, whose economic leverage in Pakistan is increasing, can also increase the pressure on Pakistan to take action. Beijing itself has had to contend with terror attacks emanating from Pakistani soil and cannot continue to look the other way for much longer. Its own projects in Pakistan would be jeopardized if these terror groups are not dealt with firmly.

The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) has decided to put Pakistan on its “grey list” in June 2018. The main objective of this inter-governmental body is to combat financial crimes such as money laundering and terror financing. While the US moved a motion to put Pakistan on the grey list on February 14, other countries like China, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia were opposed to such a move. The US subsequently managed to prevail upon China and Saudi Arabia to withdraw their support for Pakistan. In the run-up to its general elections, Pakistan will be under international pressure to take action against terror groups like the JuD and LeT.

The role of external powers is not restricted to pressurizing Pakistan to take action against terror groups, but also to convince both New Delhi and Islamabad to engage with each other and reduce their level of conflict. While speaking to reporters on February 28, US State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said: “We think that both sides would certainly have to sit down and have talks about that.”

Afghanistan too will play an important role in re-shaping the India-Pakistan dynamic especially if the TAPI project is to go ahead. Interestingly, the Taliban has agreed to lend support to this project. In a statement, the Taliban categorically stated: “TAPI is an important economic project in the region and the Taliban group will cooperate for its implementation in the areas that are under the control of the group.”

The next few months are extremely important, and while both governments should take all possible steps towards easing tensions, the Pakistan Army will also need to avoid its zero-sum approach. In this context, the role of external players, especially China, is important. While it is always tough to predict the future course of the bilateral relationship, the developments of the past few weeks are encouraging.

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