After the unceremonious ouster of Imran Khan from the seat of government in Pakistan and the promulgation of Shehbaz Sharif as Prime Minister, there have been signs of a thaw in India-Pakistan relations. It was reported that the Pakistan Army chief, General Qamar Bajwa, had countenanced backchannel talks and a “limited trade resumption package” with India. This was to help alleviate some of the stresses on Pakistan’s flailing and cash-strapped domestic economy that was veering on the edge of a default in the face of a widening current account deficit and high inflation brought on by the after-effects of a global novel coronavirus pandemic, unprecedented floods, and decades of poor planning.
As a respite, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently agreed to a one-year extension for Pakistan’s 39-month, $6 billion Extended Fund Facility programme begun in 2019, and further added an additional $1.17 billion to its coffers. To ease its situation further, especially considering the devastating impact of the floods on food supply in Pakistan, Pakistan’s Finance Minister Miftah Ismail had indicated his openness to import “vegetables and edible items from India”. However, Mr. Sharif had to quickly retract Mr. Ismail’s suggestion and restate his government’s commitment to prioritising a resolution of the Kashmir dispute before normalisation of bilateral relations could take place. There has been no official confirmation of India’s proposal to provide food aid to Pakistan, nor of any Pakistani request for the same.
It is abundantly clear that Mr. Sharif, despite the obvious economic benefit of seeking trade in essential commodities with India, is unable to overcome the pressures of domestic public opinion in Pakistan. His predecessor’s controversial and unpopular departure via a vote of no-confidence and upcoming general elections in Pakistan has swayed Mr. Sharif’s decision-making. Mr. Khan’s party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf, won a convincing victory in the hugely important Punjab by-polls earlier this year. Meanwhile, the stock of the Sharif-led coalition is sinking as he has been forced to introduce austerity measures and rollback public subsidies to meet the IMF’s demands.
A simple application of rational choice theory would suggest that Mr. Sharif’s choice is fairly straightforward. Pakistan should ask India, a large agricultural producer in the neighbourhood, to provide it essential aid in its moment of crisis. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi had even tweeted that he was “saddened to see the devastation caused by the floods in Pakistan”. This suggests an implicit willingness to provide food aid if required. It is worth noting that India provided essential vaccine supplies to Pakistan during the COVID-19 pandemic and there is precedence for cooperation between the two nations when faced with such emergencies. But still, Mr. Sharif could not muster the political will to serve Pakistan’s short-term interests, despite the fact that such trade would not create long-term dependencies on India, or require extreme concessions, or entail a compromise of principles.
This episode sheds light on the enduring nature of India-Pakistan relations. Due to the deep securitisation of the Kashmir dispute in Pakistan’s social imaginary, it is quite challenging for Pakistan’s leadership to sustain any sort of peacemaking with India, even if strong material incentives are present. It is known that the electoral costs of such an undertaking would be suicidal, making Pakistani peacemakers susceptible to popular backlash.
In my research on conflict termination, I have found that the personal reputations of leaders as well as moments of weakness can be useful to trust-building processes between rivals. Mr. Sharif and Mr. Modi have reputations that are conducive. Mr. Modi, as former Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee’s successor, was seen by Nawaz Sharif, Shehbaz Sharif’s brother and former Pakistani Prime Minister, as a populist leader capable of countenancing an Indian compromise on the Kashmir dispute. It is likely that this view still holds sway.
Similarly, the Modi government in India has long seen the Sharif regime in Pakistan as supportive of stability in bilateral ties. Mr. Modi had even made a surprise visit to Lahore in 2015 to meet Nawaz Sharif and demonstrate his sincerity in resolving pending disputes. Pakistan’s weakness and need for food aid is also apparent in the given circumstances. India too would like to refocus its overstretched defence capacities on handling China. Still, a breakthrough remains elusive.
In the 1950s
This was also the case in 1953 when Mohammed Ali Bogra and Jawaharlal Nehru negotiated the Kashmir dispute. Bogra was a Bengali and desirably seen in New Delhi as lacking Punjabi sentimentality on Kashmir. Nehru on the other hand was considered a strong, popular, and secular leader who was able to withstand the crosscurrents of public opinion in India. Then too, Pakistan faced economic distress. Bogra and Nehru made reciprocal visits to New Delhi and Karachi. They got close to an agreed solution on Kashmir, but each time, Bogra’s inability to foster domestic coalitions to support the peacemaking process with India overrode the negotiations. The ire of domestic publics against Bogra as well as the disapproval of his cabinet colleagues were insurmountable. Such failure to manage domestic audience costs in Pakistan and insulate the peace process from spoilers has been a recurrent trope and has derailed several India-Pakistan peace dialogues.
In the circumstances, much will depend on the outcome of the next general elections in Pakistan and the choice of Gen. Bajwa’s successor. If the Sharif-led coalition government returns to power and a similar-minded army chief is appointed, there may indeed be renewed opening for a sustained backchannel dialogue and trade. However, these talks too are likely to remain unfruitful until there is bipartisan support in Pakistan on the need to normalise ties with India and the two states enter a long period of de-securitisation. This may be too much to ask for. But, without it, the price of peace with India will be too high for Pakistan’s leaders. As long as the option of peace (or in this case, trade) forces Pakistan’s leaders to choose between their survival as political agents and the larger interests of the state, the answer is likely to disappoint.
Ameya Pratap Singh is a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford and Managing Editor at Statecraft Daily