India-Pakistan Relations: Is the Chasm Widening?

In August, as floods wreaked havoc throughout Pakistan, the country’s finance minister hinted at the possibility of importing food items from its neighbor India. For many observers, it seemed like a good opportunity for the neighbors to bury the hatchet and revive diplomatic ties downgraded in 2019. But, in what has now become a familiar scene, on the following day, Pakistan’s Prime Minister publicly ruled out any such initiative on account of Indian policies in the disputed region of Kashmir. Unsurprisingly, considering there was no formal proposal to respond to, India downplayed the possibility of resuming bilateral trade, dashing any hopes of re-engagement between the two sides.

Yet, despite the public display of reluctance, experts have been optimistic about the trajectory of the relationship. In recent months, there has been a lot of speculation about a potential breakthrough in light of positive remarks made by leaders on both sides, stating their willingness to make peace. On top of that, renewed backchannels with the new government in Pakistan have ignited hopes about the possibility of durable peace, or at the very least a return to normalcy. This line of thinking is predicated on a narrative which claims that both establishments are rethinking their approach to prevent further deterioration of ties. While this may hold a kernel of truth, it behoves us to dig deeper to understand the factors that seem to be holding back the neighbors from translating words into action.

The Story So Far

The already troubled relationship has been in a downward spiral since 2019 when India conducted pre-emptive airstrikes on terror camps propped up by Pakistan across the Line of Control (LoC). This action was partly a response to a suicide attack which claimed the lives of 40 Indian soldiers, carried out by a terrorist linked to a Pakistan-based terrorist group. However, what was more consequential that year was India’s decision to revoke Article 370, which granted special status to the Indian state of Kashmir, along with its statehood. In response, Pakistan expelled the Indian High Commissioner, recalled its ambassador from Delhi and suspended bilateral trade.

Since then, positions on both sides have hardened, with both nations reiterating that when it comes to restarting engagement, the onus lies with the other. While New Delhi insists that its decisions concerning Kashmir are an internal matter, Islamabad has consistently asserted that restoration of ties is only possible after India reverses its policies in Kashmir.

Despite the apparent willingness to resume dialogue, about-turns have almost become a standard practice in the relationship. For instance, when the Economic Coordination Committee of Pakistan recommended allowing the import of sugar and cotton from India on commercial grounds last year, it met with a similar fate. After the proposal was announced by the Finance Minister, within a few days the government had to defer the proposal indefinitely after facing criticism from the opposition and objections from its ministries.

Interestingly, came at a time when normalization seemed within reach. In February 2021, the two militaries agreed to a ceasefire after 15 years, and prospects of peace were believed to be resting on solid grounds primarily because it was driven by the powerful military establishment in Pakistan, with the Army Chief personally pushing for a resolution.

Giving credence to this argument, at the Islamabad Security Dialogue in March 2021, General Bajwa called on both sides to “bury the past and move forward”, a sentiment echoed by the Prime Minister of Pakistan on the same stage. These statements were supposed to be a part of Pakistan’s “geo-economic” pivot, in line with its newly unveiled National Security Policy. While laced with the same conditions, it was the beginning of a series of remarks that would be seen as the Army signaling for dialogue.

However, while the ceasefire was a positive step, it has not been enough to make headway on the current impasse on Kashmir and create any momentum that would lead to re-engagement or ensure progress on low-hanging fruit like trade. Attempts to overcome this three-year-old stalemate have been further compounded by the wider influence of domestic politics today, making it slightly different from previous deadlocks of similar nature.

Maximalist Positions and Audience Costs

From the start, the public in Pakistan has been assured by all political parties that the resumption of any dialogue with India will be contingent upon policy reversals by India concerning the autonomy of Kashmir. When in opposition, members of the current government themselves opposed engagement with India based on this “principled stance”. To go back on that promise without extracting concessions or assurances on Kashmir’s legal status would be seen as an unacceptable compromise.

Furthermore, since Imran Khan’s ouster, hostility between political parties has reached unprecedented levels with accusations of treason flying thick and fast. And while the reasons behind the downfall of Khan’s government are mainly to do with his disagreements with the military over army appointments, matters related to foreign policy have remained at the center of all the controversy.

Apart from labelling the current ruling dispensation as an “imported government”—brought to power by the U.S. through a “foreign conspiracy”, the former leader claims he is being penalized for pursuing an “independent foreign policy”. Baying for early elections, Khan has also used foreign policy as a tool to whip up support domestically by tapping into the potent anti-Americanism prevalent in Pakistan.

From establishing diplomatic relations with Israel to buying Russian energy, everything has been politicized, and is now seen as a potential political landmine, including the ratification of a much-needed IMF deal. More importantly, in recent weeks, despite the government clarifying that “engagement with India remains untenable” for them, Khan has accused the ruling coalition of “secretly establishing relations” with India, keeping their “business interests” in mind. At such a time, any move that can be interpreted as “sending a wrong impression to Kashmiris”, as Imran Khan puts it, is bound to be used against the government.

There is also deep mistrust of other institutions and the role they play in the country’s politics, including the military, which is under immense scrutiny. Accused of allegedly supporting the change in government, or worse, orchestrating it at the behest of the U.S., the much-vaunted military establishment will have less room to push through any initiative with India. Despite coming down hard against Khan, the military has not been able to demonstrate its “neutrality”. Plus, having escaped a failed assassination attempt—which Khan and his supporters believe is the work of elements within the security establishment—it is clear that the former Prime Minister will hold a lot of sway going forward, and will be willing to use anything to hurt the institution in case they do not lean in his favor in the coming elections.

Khan has already alluded to his differences with the Army on his hard stance against the Modi government, saying that the Army asked him not to hit Modi below the belt to safeguard backchannel negotiations at the time. Therefore, despite General Bajwa’s calls for peace, signs of division within his ranks, coupled with the politics around the appointment of his successor, would make it difficult to introduce a radical shift in the Army’s India policy.

View from New Delhi

Similarly, in India, there is very little support for a compromise with Pakistan or to start a dialogue, as evident by recent comments made by the Indian Home Minister in Kashmir. Support for the revocation of Article 370 is overwhelming, to such an extent that reinstating it is almost unthinkable for any political outfit. Besides, for the ruling party, undoing it is not just a long-standing goal but also an illustration of a decisive decision aimed towards “resolving” the Kashmir issue.

Moreover, India’s unwillingness to accept anything less than a significant reduction in support of terrorism by Pakistan is also a by-product of the growing asymmetry in national power between the two nations. Hence, guns going silent on the LoC or a brief reigning-in of terrorist infiltration is no longer enough for India to take the initiative. Plus, while there is a possibility of Kashmir’s statehood being restored—something Pakistan can use to assuage public sentiment—the shrill rhetoric coming from Islamabad suggests a review of its maximalist position is unlikely.

Nevertheless, despite its aggressive posture towards Pakistan, the current government has shown its willingness to reach out in recent years. Contrary to popular belief in Pakistan, the Indian Prime Minister has enough political capital to start a substantive dialogue and the ability to weather criticism from hawks in India. But, with a steady increase in infiltration on the border and the growing political uncertainty in Pakistan, India has few options but to wait.

However, with each passing episode—that ultimately does not lead to a dialogue—it becomes harder for both sides to do away with the prerequisites they have set out for any interaction, especially for Pakistan. And if a climate catastrophe of this magnitude seen in August is not enough to push through a proposal of limited engagement, then outstanding issues that lie at the core of this long-drawn disengagement may be more difficult to overcome than previously estimated.