The enigma of Pakistan in India: managing a complex relationship
Pakistan is in the midst of another spiraling political and economic crisis. Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif, who took office in April after the opposition threw out Imran Khan’s government, faces tough economic decisions, which risk making the decision unpopular, that too with only a year to go before the elections. The former prime minister, meanwhile, is drawing huge crowds as he rails against an alleged US plot that overthrew him. His pet peeve, army chief General Javed Qamar Bajwa, is due to retire in November. Who will be his successor may well decide the political course over the next five years. Meanwhile, even though the Sharif government had wanted to take certain measures such as restarting trade relations with India, Khan’s reckless willingness to throw anything at Sharif and Bajwa again narrowed the space for any improvement in India-Pakistan relations.
At this time of high flow in India’s neighbour, Sharat Sabharwal’s book, India’s Pakistan Conundrum (Routledge), guides us through the complexities of the country. Pragmatically, Sabharwal, who served as India’s high commissioner in Islamabad from 2009 to 2013, and also served there in the 1990s, explains why Pakistani politics, “born out of anger and false notions of national honour, can cause more harm than good” and “accepting the realities on the ground and working accordingly is a matter of sagacity and not pusillanimity”.
What are these realities on the ground? Sabharwal lays them out: yes, Pakistan is a dysfunctional state due to its civil-military imbalance and the use of jihadist/terrorist groups. But Pakistan is here to stay, and any strategy based on its disintegration is doomed to failure, not least because the resulting chaos will not stop at Pakistan’s borders. Plus, he has nuclear weapons. Total war is not a good idea. India’s tactical military options to deter the Pakistani terror machine (“surgical strikes”, Balakot for Pulwama) may only have a temporary impact. Coercion by trade or water does not work – in the former case volumes are too low, and the latter could lead to unintended consequences for India where it is the lower riparian (as with China). With the close relations between China and Pakistan, Pakistan has become part of India’s biggest Chinese problem.
Sabharwal favors a pragmatic approach that emphasizes the co-prosperity of the region, in which Pakistan will realize that it has more to gain by improving itself economically than by dragging India down, but it is equally clear that this realization may take time to sink in in Pakistan, as its fragile country self-identity – “not India” – comes in the way of rational decision-making and common sense. This is also happening in India, and Sabharwal has some advice on this: if you want to change Pakistan’s behavior, there is work to be done at home, and it’s not just about military force and counter-terrorism capabilities. . It is about preventing Pakistan from fishing in troubled waters by bringing order to India, including Jammu and Kashmir, by rebuilding what was once the broad national consensus on foreign policy that n no longer exists, and avoiding competitive displays of meanness towards the neighbour.
But one of the most fascinating stories Sabharwal tells is that at some point in the not-too-distant past, both sides were willing to put aside their differences and make rational choices. This was in trade negotiations between 2011 and 2012. This is particularly interesting after the government of Imran Khan flip-flopped last year on the decision to reopen the Wagah border for limited trade in sugar and cotton until India reverses its August 2019 decisions on Kashmir. These talks succeeded in breaking new ground, only to crash into the beheading of three Indian soldiers at the Line of Control.
But there is a twist in the story. In Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif was elected in 2013 and his government decided to resume the quasi-final trade agreement with India. In March 2014, writes Sabharwal, he learned from Indian official circles – he had retired the previous year – that if necessary, the UPA government was even prepared to seek the approval of the Electoral Commission to complete the trade standardization process. But the momentum has slowed. A retired Pakistani official told Sabharwal that the Pakistan High Commission informed the government that they had been informed by a BJP leader that Nawaz Sharif should wait and sign the trade agreement with the new BJP government. . The rest, as they say, is history – of a missed opportunity.
The book contains solid chapters on the internal dynamics of Pakistan, including the military and the civil-military imbalance, the J&K issue and the backchannel process, and the nuclear dimension in India-Pakistan relations.
Sabharwal has allowed himself to recount only a few personal incidents, but he integrates them well. As a Punjabi from India, he spoke the language of Pakistan’s predominant ethnic group and had easy relationships with many members of its political elite, including Nawaz Sharif. When he paid a farewell visit to President Asif Ali Zardari in July 2013 after his rival Sharif won the election, the PPP leader jovially told him: “Tussi apne yaar nu PM bana key chal paye”. He also recalled his 80-year-old mother’s visit to her home in Lahore, and the easy conversation between her and the hostess, as if they had known each other all their lives.
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