The age of minimalism in India-Pakistan ties

There is now a certain ‘cold peace’ between the traditional rivals, with no political will for any grand relationship, grand gestures or grand outreach

November 08, 2022 12:16 am | Updated 12:56 pm IST

At the Wagha border, in 2019

At the Wagha border, in 2019 | Photo Credit: AP

India-Pakistan relations have entered an age of minimalism, counter-intuitive as it might seem. There is very little bilateral contact today, even fewer expectations of a bilateral breakthrough, and hardly any warmth in the relationship. And yet, there is a certain ‘cold peace’ between the traditional rivals — on the Line of Control, inside Kashmir and in the verbal exchanges between the two sides. The usual melodrama that surrounds India-Pakistan relations is only seen today when their national sides play each other during cricket tournaments. This is certainly new and a tad refreshing. But will it last?

India-Pakistan relations of the kind we have been used to over several decades now — characterised by intense engagement, high value terror attacks, Indian responses, a breakdown of talks, and eventual resumption of talks; rinse and repeat — may well be a thing of the past. Today, there is no political will for any grand relationship, grand gestures or grand outreach. The bilateral contact is tactical, business-like and unemotional. It is ironic that for a political party that was initially Pakistan-obsessed and used Pakistan for domestic political purposes, Pakistan occupies little space in the foreign policy agenda of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) today.

What it entails

The BJP government in New Delhi began with the standard package of engaging Pakistan. There was the invitation extended to Nawaz Sharif (the then Pakistan Prime Minister) for Narendra Modi’s inaugural function in New Delhi (May 2014), which Mr. Sharif attended, followed by Mr. Modi’s surprise visit to Lahore (December 2015), and the discreet meetings between the two National Security Advisers (NSA). In January 2016, even when the Pathankot airbase was attacked by a Pakistan-based terrorist organisation, New Delhi hoped that things would get better. But it was not to be. The September 2016 terror attack in Uri, which led to the ‘Surgical Strikes’ by India, practically froze the relationship. The February 2019 terror attack in Pulwama, and the BJP government’s decisions made in August 2019 on Kashmir put the relationship in deep freeze.

Over time, New Delhi appears to have realised that it requires too much time, commitment and effort to make peace with Pakistan — and little guarantee that it will succeed despite all that. This historical and experiential learning about the ‘futility’ of pursuing a normal relationship with its western neighbour has led to this current phase of minimalism. As a result, India-Pakistan relations today have been reduced to a backchannel conversation between the Indian NSA and the Pakistan Army establishment.

The rationale and methodology

There are at least five reasons why the present age of minimalism has come to characterise India-Pakistan relations.

For one, the relationship is the history of missed opportunities, failed attempts at conflict resolution, political inability to resolve conflicts due to the dual power centre in Pakistan, and the lack of political will on either side. These disappointments have led to a recognition in New Delhi, that making comprehensive peace with Pakistan is a fool’s errand. Second, there is a recognition on both sides that for all the talk about conflict resolution, there is no easy way to resolve their complicated conflicts and that, going forward, bilateral conflict resolution may get harder due to rising populism fuelled by online hate. Third, New Delhi also realises that the traditional logic in India that it should first settle its conflicts with Pakistan and then move on to addressing the bigger challenges may take New Delhi nowhere for, after all, none of the key bilateral conflicts between them has been resolved since the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960. Four, there is also a certain confidence in New Delhi today that it does not need to talk to Pakistan to ensure peace inside Kashmir. This growing confidence in New Delhi about its capability to defend Kashmir against Pakistani aggression or from terror attacks, and the belief in deterrence by punishment will further moderate India’s desire to have elaborate conflict resolution exercises with Pakistan. Finally, both sides today are preoccupied with other geopolitical challenges — Pakistan with the Taliban-led Afghanistan, and India with an aggressive China on its borders — thereby keeping them busy elsewhere than with each other.

The age of minimalism in India-Pakistan relations is characterised by several noticeable features. For one, the interlocutors on either side (more so on the Indian side) appear to have adopted a clinical approach to dealing with the other side: discuss and deal with only those issues that need urgent attention. The second feature is the unmissable focus on conflict management, with little focus on conflict resolution.

Kashmir, for instance, is discussed in the context of the modalities for sustaining the ceasefire agreement, and not the historical political conflict over Kashmir. But given that the current engagement is decidedly for tactical purposes, larger political issues are kept outside of its purview. The third important aspect of this minimalist approach is that it has so far served as a useful platform for clarifying red lines, expectation management, and achieving limited but clear outcomes. The 2021 February ceasefire agreement is one such outcome, and relative reduction in violence in Kashmir is another.

Dealing with Rawalpindi

However, to my mind, the most important aspect of this minimalist approach is something else — New Delhi’s ability to shed its traditional hesitations about directly dealing with the Pakistani army establishment. India has traditionally been of the view that it would only engage with the political establishment in Islamabad (or whoever runs the show in Islamabad). This had a structural issue — attempts at conflict resolution by India with Pakistan did not always have the blessings of Rawalpindi, which occasionally torpedoed such attempts. The current arrangement, wherein there is little contact between New Delhi and Islamabad but between Rawalpindi and New Delhi, has not only corrected the structural problem in India-Pakistan relations, it also appears that the Pakistan Army takes this direct approach more seriously. To that extent, this is a win-win strategy. And yet, given that the current strategy of minimalist engagement with the Pakistani deep state is unlikely to be able to tackle the larger substantive political questions, the process may run into challenges over time or its tactical utility might eventually be exhausted. The single most handicap of this process is that it is ill-suited to deal with larger political questions.

Happymon Jacob is Associate Professor, Centre for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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