Financial Express, June 07, 2023

By Pradeep S Mehta & Amit Dasgupta

Expectations from the visit of Pakistani foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari last month—to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) conclave—were hight, but the visit turned out to be less conducive of the hopes for a new chapter in India-Pakistan bilateral relations. Some had even advocated that external affairs minister S Jaishankar seize the opportunity to take a unilateral step to remedy soured relations. But that did not make any sense.

In addition to Pakistan’s economic and political crises, there was no support to Zardari’s trip from his own country. In Goa, Zardari outlined his own priorities of holding bilateral talks with ‘friendly countries’, which certainly did not include India.

Perhaps those who advocate normalising relations need to remind themselves of history. Indeed, ever since the creation of India and Pakistan, Islamabad has found the very idea of India an existential threat. Recorded history of a series of unfriendly actions, including military, have characterised Islamabad’s approach to India. To ‘bleed India through a ‘thousand cuts’ is part of the Pakistan military’s stated strategy to wage a covert continuous war with India on multiple locations through cross-border terror strikes.

In this war, Pakistan is funding Sikh separatists to engage in terrorism not only in India, but also abroad. Even temples in Australia have been desecrated by the Sikh militants. This has muddied the waters.

There are powerful forces in Pakistan whose perceptions of India are inimical to New Delhi’s strategic interests. The comprehensive military defeat in the 1971 war leading to the creation of Bangladesh, India’s agreement with the US on the civilian use of nuclear energy, its growing ascendancy in global affairs, and a host of other developments, have created a relationship of unequals.

It is also worth keeping in mind that the role of the military and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is critical to the way Pakistan is governed. Indeed, to assume that Pakistan is a democracy is itself a flawed assumption. The military runs the country with installed civilians in a make-believe civilian rule. In a recent article, Pakistani journalist, Touqur Hassain, refers to democracy in Pakistan as being both ‘illusive and elusive’ and laments how it is meant to serve only the interests of the elite, who are principally drawn from the armed forces. Consequently, it would be fair to say that the fault lines of ‘democracy’ in Pakistan lie in both form and substance.

Little would be achieved by speaking to installed representatives of the Pakistan government because of the speed with which they outlive their utility. In any case, Pakistan is sliding into chaos. It is on the verge of economic collapse. Poor governance, economic mismanagement, budget deficits, corruption, spiralling unemployment, pandemic-driven economic slowdown, and other related causes, have led to a severe contraction of its economy. The economic fundamentals have caved in and IMF has projected that the GDP would grow by a mere 3.5% with runaway inflation estimated at 20%.

Politically, former prime minister Imran Khan’s troubles with the military and the present government, including his arrest (he subsequently received bail), triggered a wave of protest that many see as the extreme frustration of the Pakistani people at the ongoing state of affairs. Anger has been directed against the military. This has elicited a brutal and uncompromising crackdown, as military finds its own position of authority challenged, and needs to crush the demonstrations before they spiral out of control.

Under the given circumstances, Islamabad could have learnt important history lessons and should have tried to address ground problems, this would have been a step in a cordial relationship between India and Pakistan. Even if we were to consider the SCO summit in India in the first week of July, it is a matter of speculation as to whether the present prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif, would still be around to lead the Pakistan delegation or if he would have been replaced. Given this lack of certainty, New Delhi is better placed to hold back-channel talks with the military and continue to distance the installed civilian government. In any case, given the prevailing volatile situation, hitting the pause button would be logical.

For those expressing dismay that a golden opportunity was lost when Zardari visited, perhaps it is worth reminding that diplomacy is about the unwavering protection and pursuance of national interests. Where these strategic interests are challenged, diplomacy requires that it be effectively communicated. If such communication is not understood despite repeated efforts, the language of communication needs to be altered so that the message is unambiguously conveyed.

Islamabad understands that New Delhi sees no strategic need to alter the status quo. However, a peaceful reach out of hand by calling out terror as terror should be the opening remarks of the Pakistani head of the state during the upcoming summit. Otherwise, the gospel truths remain.

Mehta is secretary general, CUTS International, and Dasgupta is distinguished fellow, CUTS International, and Australia India Institute. Opinions expressed by the authors are personal.

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