Bilawal’s Outreach

Illustration for representational purposes only

The Pakistan foreign minister’s recent conciliatory speech at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad indicates the country is ready to engage with New Delhi

PAKISTAN’S foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari struck a blow for Ind0-Pak engagement by arguing during his recent speech at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad that this was in Pakistan’s interest. Bhutto-Zardari made his case by highlighting the failure of Pakistan’s past policies which, in his opinion, had not helped his country achieve its objectives, “be it Kashmir, be it the rising Islamophobia (in India).” Pakistan, he contended, would be in a better position to influence Delhi’s policy and prevent both countries from taking extreme positions through an economic engagement between the two. Bhutto-Zardari maintained that disengagement with India is ineffective despite “long histories of war and conflict”.

Though the argument of Pakistan foreign minister for a sustainable Indo-Pak relationship is qualitatively different, the intention to reach out to India is not new. At the beginning of the last year, the now ousted Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan and the Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa had made similar conciliatory noises.  Speaking at Islamabad Security Dialogue on  March 17 last year, Khan said if peace was given a chance, India and the entire neighbourhood in South Asia could leverage economic dividends through trade in the resource-rich Central Asian region. In his speech  at the same event on the following day, General Bajwa went a step further saying it was time for the two nuclear-armed countries “to bury the past and move forward.”

Incidentally, these noises were made immediately following the re-affirmation of the  2003 ceasefire agreement along the Line of Control. But the two countries were unable to build on it to resume dialogue.  Nor does it seem likely now. Overall, the neighbours haven’t held a meaningful engagement since the 2008 Mumbai attack that killed 169 people. And between 2003 and 2007, the two countries had held sustained negotiations over Kashmir that had nearly culminated in the resolution of the Kashmir issue. No such possibility exists now. In fact, New Delhi has now changed the goalpost and may be perpetually so: After the withdrawal of Article 370 it has taken the issue of Kashmir off the table not only with Kashmiri separatists who no longer have a presence on the political scene but also with Pakistan.  And as things stand, it looks unlikely that this situation will change anytime soon.

Will geopolitical factors force New Delhi’s hand? Not necessarily. There may be some intermittent modest re-adjustment in policy approach but not a fundamental shift. For example, during last year’s alleged back-channel dialogue with Pakistan, one could see regional geopolitics playing some role. Several factors were at play: India has been engaged in a tense stand-off with China along the Line of Actual Control, forcing New Delhi to mass its troops along the border to deter further ingress by the PLA.

The LoC agreement was also traced to the US nudging the two countries from behind the scenes. The US involvement in the relationship between India and Pakistan is a fairly complex affair. New Delhi wants the US to intervene to sort out the terror problem in Pakistan, but it brooks no meddling in Kashmir.  Similarly, Islamabad wants US intervention on Kashmir but wouldn’t like Washington to speak on behalf of India on terror. More so,  at a time when the US is seen as partial towards India. This contradiction hardly makes the US an ideal mediator between the two countries. The starkness of this reality leaves India and Pakistan no choice but to engage and confront their problems themselves.

But here again, the two countries have exhibited a singular inability to talk sustainably. The suspension of the dialogue over the last decade is enlightening on this score. Today, relations between the two countries have reached a point where old equations not only between New Delhi and Islamabad but also between Kashmiri separatists and New Delhi no longer apply. Following the withdrawal of Article 370, Hurriyat has been obliterated from the scene.

Pakistan is no longer bolstered by the strategic depth of Afghanistan – unlike in the nineties, the Taliban seems to be keen on keeping some distance from Islamabad – or leveraged by the all-encompassing militant struggle in Kashmir. This has brought in a considerable inequality between the parties which no amount of rhetoric in Kashmir and Islamabad can hide. And this inequality  – accentuated further by a stronger India – is likely to leave a deep imprint on the content of the future dialogue. And of course, on the outcome of it too, if it is sustainably held. It will be an outcome that will not be completely satisfying of the expectations of the weaker parties. Or else, the logjam that has persisted for the past seven decades will linger on.

Returning to Bhutto-Zardari’s speech, does this signal that Pakistan is ready to engage India? Quite possible since he is Pakistan’s foreign minister, so his statements to this effect assume greater significance. More so, when Pakistan Army is believed to be an inextricable part of the country’s foreign policy.

Is any back-channel dialogue taking place between the two countries? Again, it can be anyone’s guess.  But as for the overall approach of the leadership of the two countries towards each other, nothing even remotely suggests that any engagement is in the works.  Or is it? The coming weeks should make things clear on this score. After a few months, Pakistan is likely to get into an election mode, making any engagement with New Delhi meaningless.

  • Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer   

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Riyaz Wani

Riyaz Wani is the Political Editor at Kashmir Observer

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