Two interesting developments have taken place in recent weeks. Firstly, a report submitted by standing committee on External Affairs recommended the resumption of engagement between both countries, without allowing spoilers to dictate the bilateral relationship between both countries. While unequivocally stating that engagement between two neighbors can not be suspended indefinitely, the report also advocated an incremental approach towards the resumption of engagement.
Said the report:
‘The committee would recommend an incremental approach to such a resumption of the dialogue process by starting with less contentious issues.’
While broadly concurring with the recommendations of the Standing Committee, the Indian government stated that the quest for peace and resolution of outstanding issues was only possible in an ‘environment free from terror, hostility and violence”
Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister, Mehbooba Mufti whosePeople’s Democratic Party PDP, which currently is in power in Kashmir, is part of the BJP (Bharatiya Janata party) led NDA (National Democratic Alliance) also spoke in favour of resuming dialogue with Pakistan. While addressing a gathering at the mausoleum of her father,and former chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, the Jammu and Kashmir CM stated:
“Resumption of dialogue between India and Pakistan is the only way forward to end the bloodshed in Kashmir.”
While addressing the State Assembly on January 10, 2018 Mufti again batted in favour of dialogue between both countries:
“Resumption of dialogue between India and Pakistan is the only way forward to end the bloodshed in Kashmir,” she said.
It is highly unlikely, that any significant moves are likely to be made towards resuming engagement between both countries. Pakistan will go into election mode very soon, and even otherwise the current civilian government led by ShahidKhaqanAbbasi is not really in control. Post the elections of 2018, a PML-N Government led by Shahbaz Sharif, may be in a better position to reach out to India.
On the Indian side, PM Modi has numerous domestic challenges, and given the current narrative and atmosphere, it is highly unlikely that he will resume engagement with Pakistan. Before the Parliamentary elections of May 2019, there are a number of state elections, where national security issues may not be the decisive factor but they do matter. One of the states which goes to elections in December 2018 interestingly is Rajasthan — a state which shares borders with Pakistan.
Both sides, India and Pakistan, would do well to pay heed to the recommendation of the Standing Committee about adopting an incremental approach towards engagement. Former PM, Dr. Manmohan Singh who has been criticized on more than one occasion for being weak and soft on Pakistan, may not have been great at symbolism, like his successor, yet he never completely shut the doors of engagement, and adopted an incremental approach. While a lot has been written and said about how Dr. Singh and Musharraf were close to reaching a settlement on contentious issues including Kashmir. It would be pertinent to point out, that the period between 2011-2014 was successful in terms of economic engagement. This period witnessed a number of interactions between high level officials from both sides, upgradation of the border infrastructure at Attari (an Integrated Check Post was set up with an eye on giving a fillip to bilateral trade between both countries) and a rise in bilateral trade.
Then President of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, during his meeting with former Indian Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh in New Delhi in April 2012, spoke about the dire need for both countries to de-hyphenate economics from politics, and follow an approach similar to that of India and China. Zardari reiterated the point, that while New Delhi and Beijing, have numerous political differences, these differences have not come in the way of economic linkages between both countries. Here it would be important to point out, that post the Doklamstand off in 2017, there were signals of economic relations between both countries suffering with India imposing restrictions on the important of Chinese goods such as tyres, tempered glass and toys.
If both countries are to revive engagement, and ensure that it is successful. It is important, to focus less on personal chemistry, and more on concrete issues ,and identify specific areas of economic cooperation as well as people to people linkages, which are doable.
Second, there can not be a blow hot, blow cold approach. Personal visits by leaders, and meetings between senior government officials should be avoided. Excessive media attention and hype ensure that such efforts fail. Instead, it is better that engagement between junior officials is encouraged.
Third, engagement at the sub-national level is important. In the past, the two Punjabs have played a positive role in improving ties between both countries. Efforts should be made to rekindle economic and cultural linkages between both provinces. While currently, the situation may not be conducive, post the elections of 2018 it may not be a bad idea for the Chief Ministers of both the Punjab’s to explore possible linkages. The Chief Minister of Punjab, Captain Amarinder Singh (India) had also mooted the idea of selling surplus power to Pakistan. While the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi did give approval to this idea, it could not go ahead because of tensions between both countries. Interestingly in November 2017, Shahbaz Sharif, CM of Punjab (Pakistan) in a letter to Captain Amarinder Singh had also proposed that both sides jointly combat the issue of smog and pollution. In the letter Sharif wrote:
‘I would like to invite you for entering into a regional cooperation arrangement to tackle the issue of smog as well as environmental pollution. Let us join hands for securing a prosperous future for the people of our two provinces’.
It is thus important for the Central government to seek inputs from Chief Ministers of all border-states (Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir and Rajasthan) and accordingly explore possibilities of common ground.
In conclusion, it is important that engagement between both countries is not held hostage to the desires of certain hostile elements, though off course it is equally important that Pakistan genuinely reigns in on terror groups targeting India. On the Indian side, the government needs to strike a balance between ground realities, while not being bogged down excessively by the shrill ultra nationalist propaganda of the electronic media. It is also important, to continuously think outside the box and keep all important stakeholders on board, for ensuring that all doors of engagement are not shut.