India-Pakistan relations, despite their arguably existential importance for both countriesthey are, after all, nuclear weapons powershave become the worlds most boring diplomatic story. The vast majority of their populations eke out an existence around or below any meaningful poverty line. Yet their respective governments succeed only in bringing out the worst in each other and keeping their public opinion belligerent, stupid and utterly uninformed towards to each other. And we hope to make South Asia a 21st Century success story!
The recent fiasco surrounding the scheduled meeting of the two National Security Advisers was just another mind-numbing chapter of a tale fashioned by idiots. But then India-Pakistan relations are a universe unaffected by the laws of rationality or anything close to a scientific temper. Mutually exclusive mindsets and narratives are designed to ensure never-ending zero-sum games. These are amazingly won by both sides without the two of them ever approaching a win-win situation. That is consummate diplomatic and political artistry our gift to each other wrapped in nuclear foil.
Mutually exclusive narratives
Since Narendra Modi became Prime Minister he has sought to reshape New Delhis terms of engagement with Islamabad. This requires Pakistan to drop the issue of a Kashmir settlement from the India-Pakistan dialogue agenda, acknowledge that the Simla Agreement has superseded UN resolutions on Kashmir, and view engagement with the Hurriyat Conference as abetting terror in India. This narrative provides the parameters within which, according to New Delhi, India-Pakistan relations can move towards normalcy.
Pakistan insists on its own narrative. Kashmir is disputed territory, the UN resolutions mandating a plebiscite are still valid, Pakistan is an internationally recognized party for a Kashmir settlement in accordance with the expressed will of the Kashmiri people, the Simla Agreement does not supersede UN resolutions on Kashmir, the Kashmiri resistance against Indian occupation and repression is legally valid, similarly the Kashmiri people have the right to solicit assistance, including armed assistance, for their struggle to exercise their rights which have been denied by Indian repression, etc.
Neither party should make a change of current narratives a precondition for engagement. Pakistan sees its geographical location, its developing strategic relations with China and its own nuclear deterrence capability as sufficient guarantee against Indian military superiority and its accompanying policies of defensive offence and cold start.
The clash of narratives has been in existence for decades. Modis attempts to resolve it through muscular and kinetic diplomacy is not likely to succeed. Nor is Pakistans strategy of seeking a solution through controlled escalation within the parameters of no war, no peace, under the umbrella of nuclear deterrence.
India is currently banking on the progressive weakening of Pakistans resolve to bear the costs of its strategy towards Kashmir and India. This could well happen if Pakistan continues to fail to govern itself competently and, accordingly, allows India a whole range of options to exacerbate its several internal crises. Should, however, Pakistan succeed in significantly resolving these domestic challenges and also in normalising its relations with Afghanistan and building upon its strategic relationship with China, it will be very difficult for India to exacerbate Pakistans internal situation or to browbeat it into accepting dictated terms of bilateral engagement.
Even in these more promising conditions, Pakistan would need to recognise its inability to compel India to accept what it is not willing to. In other words, zero-sum games between two unequal powers which have second strike nuclear capabilities against each other are futile. They merely impose cumulative costs which even the smaller country, if well governed, can withstand through regional diplomacy and balanced development.
The Ufa joint statement of July 2015 was badly drafted. It gave the impression in Pakistan that India had effectively restricted the bilateral agenda to issues relating to terror, fishermen and religious tourism. This was entirely due to Pakistans lack of preparation and consequent incompetence. India-Pakistan joint statements, especially at the highest level, are always political statements. Accordingly, Pakistan had to publicly explain the statement, especially the omission of any specific mention of Kashmir. India saw this as Pakistani backsliding from its Ufa commitments. The intensification of firing across the LoC after Ufa was interpreted by India as the military in Pakistan expressing its fury over Ufa and letting Nawaz Sharif know who the real boss is.
In turn, India has sought to show Pakistan who is boss. Accordingly, it articulated preconditions including a refusal to either discuss Kashmir during the NSAs meeting or accept any interaction between the Hurriyat leadership and the Pakistani NSA. Pakistans insistence that it would both take up Kashmir during the NSA talks and maintain its invitation to the APHC were seen by India as Pakistani preconditions. Pakistans ineptness at Ufa and its subsequent efforts to compensate for it on the one hand, and Indias determination to take full of advantage Pakistans blooper in Ufa doomed the talks. The two Prime Ministers displayed an unfortunate lack of imagination and leadership. They were either atrociously advised or they chose to ignore sensible professional advice.
Modi reportedly requested Sharif not to insist on a specific mention of Kashmir. Was there an implied quid pro quo? It was not made clear. After Ufa, panic and violence ensued. Maximum positions were publicly reiterated. Stupidity prevailed. Pessimism and skepticism continue unabated. Indo-Pakistan relations remain worrisome and ridiculous. Otherwise educated, informed and sensible people in both countries are reduced to talking arrant nonsense against each other.
Where do we go from here? The governments of both countries are simply unable or unwilling to entertain the core concerns of each other. These are articulated in a manner calculated to be unacceptable to each other. This requires great if inane skills, including the manufacture of mutually obnoxious public discourses. This is facilitated by historic and recent experience on the one hand, and the prevalence of short-sighted elite and vested interests on the other. Accordingly, even if realistic and sensible governments are in office in both countries, it would be a major challenge to implement and sustain realistic and sensible policies towards each other.
Time for a time out, and review
Is this a counsel of despair? Almost. Nevertheless, there is still a sliver of hope that civil society organisations in both countries can more effectively articulate and assert a more hopeful prospect. Track 1.5 and 2 discussions have so far not been up to the task. The back-channel talks during 2004-6 demonstrated concrete possibilities. But they took place in what I call a submarine that could not surface because important segments of public opinion on both sides were unprepared for compromise. Arrogant and adamant attitudes on the one hand, and incompetent and corrupt leadership on the other, have ensured against any prospect of a more enlightened, realistic and shared public discourse developing.
A complete review of India-Pakistan relations is called for in both countries based on the assumption that an improved and more predictable bilateral relationshipentailing a range of cooperation and compromiseis critically relevant to the achievement of their respective national priorities. On this basis they should adopt strategies and road maps to address whatever core concerns are expressed by the other side and to devise modalities for mutually satisfactory progress on them. This should include a mutually acceptable modality for the participation of all Kashmiri parties, including the Hurriyat, in delineating a roadmap towards a comprehensive compromise settlement that is more or less acceptable to all the concerned stake-holders.
By definition this cannot be a perfect solution. But even so, it may be a bridge too far for the current power structures of both countries. In that case, civil society organizations and committed individuals of goodwill, foresight and imagination must take up the slack. The stakes are just too high for Indians and Pakistanis to let opportunities be foreclosed by arrogant complacency and unintelligent adventurism. If we can get onto the right track we can begin to transform an utterly boring and dangerous tale into one of the most exciting and hopeful stories of this century. Do we have the moral imagination and policy stamina to do so?
Can India achieve great power status if the answer is no? Can Pakistan become a stable and prosperous democracy if the answer is no?
–Ashraf Jehangir Qazi is a former Pakistani High Commissioner to India
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