The Subcontinental equation
Following the Sharif government’s professed willingness for peace talks, and the death of former premier Pervez Musharraf, Tanya Vatsa gauges the past and current state of Indo-Pak relations
India’s littoral neighbour, Pakistan, is notorious for its turbulent political history. The recent ouster of Imran Khan from the office of Prime Minister made him the 19th leader to have had an incomplete ministerial tenure. He lost the vote of confidence in the National Assembly after losing support from his allies and coalition partners. The constitutional and political turmoil resulted in the united opposition electing Shahbaz Sharif to the Premiership. The change of guard in the Subcontinent was followed by the death in Dubai of Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Pervez Musharraf, after a long illness.
Drowning in an economic recession, caught in a web of political turmoil, Islamabad must now look back to be able to walk decisively forward.
Shehbaz Sharif’s statement in an interview in Dubai has set geopolitical pundits deliberating a possible attempt at resolving the contentious Indo-Pak dispute. Sharif said that Pakistan had learnt its lessons from the three wars with India and did not wish to waste anymore resources fighting its neighbour. His call for peace was, however, made conditional to the withdrawal of the Modi government’s actions which abrogated the special status of Kashmir under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. Islamabad extending its arm for reconciliation and Delhi recognising the importance of such a gesture are both detrimental to domestic politics in the respective states. While the Sharif brothers have propagated the pro-peace narrative, the political dispensation in Delhi might have its reservations, unlike the last time. Yet it is fascinating that the domestic propagandas regarding Pakistan have drastically changed, despite the same party being in power during the reign of both Sharif brothers.
Musharraf in the peace equation
Pakistan’s domestic politics have been consistently built on the leader’s narrative of Indo-Pak rivalry, significantly controlled by what is known as the deep state. The military and the judiciary constitute this domineering body and have time and again taken over the reins of administration. Military coups to displace civilian leaders have been validated by the Supreme Court. The top court also upheld the right of the Army General to suspend the Constitution under the doctrine of necessity.
Nineteen ninety-nine was by far the most dramatic year for Pakistan and its larger neighbour. Its relevance lies in the similarity of the situation which marked its inception. February 1999 (much like February 2023) started with Nawaz Sharif’s offer of ‘direct peace talks’ with the then Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
On 19 February, Vajpayee undertook the Lahore bus ride in pursuance of friendship and went on to sign the ‘Lahore Declaration’, aimed at ending 50 years of hostility with Islamabad. This marked a prominent milestone in the relationship between the neighbours since independence. But the euphoria was short-lived, since Delhi was unaware of the discord between Islamabad’s civilian and military leaders. May 1999 saw the outbreak of a bloody battle at Kargil on the Indo-Pak border between the two armed forces. The massive strides made towards establishing peace fell flat with the Kargil war, which reinvigorated the local enmity and hostility on both sides of the border.
Sharif claimed he was unaware of the movement of the military at the border and that the Army General Pervez Musharraf was responsible for the war in which Islamabad faced a humiliating defeat. The war also sent alarm bells ringing through the global community, considering the two nations involved were nuclear powers by then (the nuclear warheads had become functional only in 1998). The two armies managed to prevent the escalation of the ground battle into a nuclear one and it was established that political and military conflicts would be fought without the involvement of nuclear capabilities.
The eventful year went on to witness a military coup led by Musharraf, who usurped powers from Nawaz Sharif and exiled him to Dubai under charges of corruption and misgovernance. The deep state once again succeeded in preventing a civilian leader from completing his rightful tenure.
Islamabad in the regional jigsaw
The current willingness of Shehbaz Sharif is neither novel nor sufficient to salvage the animosity between Pakistan and India. It is, however, a first since the bitter exchange of attacks across borders in the past five years. The relationship between the two countries plummeted to new lows after the Uri and Pathankot base strikes in 2016 and the Pulwama attack on a convoy of Indian military vehicles carrying Jawans (soldiers) in 2019. These attacks were followed by retaliations from the Indian army in the form of surgical strikes on militant launch pads across the Line of Control (LoC) and the Balakot strike in Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir. The conflict over Kashmir only deteriorated further when the ruling government of Prime Minister Modi unilaterally abrogated the special status of the state under Article 370 of the Constitution of India.
The recent floods in Pakistan have only worsened its grave economic woes. Lack of employment and rising inflation have hit the vast majority of the Pakistani public and caused severe disaffection against all political elites and leaders. The terrorist outfits breathing down Islamabad’s neck are only depleting and destroying the available resources. The debt-strapped nation, which relies largely on foreign aid, seems to have exhausted its goodwill with its largest donors China, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates.It is relying heavily on the last disbursement of 1.1 billion USD from the IMF as part of the 6.5 billion loan programme sanctioned in 2019 for economic sustenance. The IMF has voiced its concern about most of the aid and subsidies benefiting only the aristocratic community and failing to reach the general masses in dire need.
The present no longer reflects the past
Anti-Pakistan discourse formed the undertone of Modi’s 2019 election campaign and succeeded in getting him a sweeping victory in the world’s largest democracy. In 1999, the same party (Bharatiya Janta Party) was in power under Vajpayee; however, his idea was that of a peaceful Indian subcontinent, cohabiting with its Islamic neighbour without the persistent rivalry. Shahbaz Sharif has a more hostile ruling party at the helm in Delhi.
In the seven decades since independence, as Islamabad has delved deeper into its monetary woes, India has risen to become the fifth largest economy in the world. While Pakistan still holds its strategic significance at the head of the Indian Ocean, it has become besieged by internally generated and bred issues and entities. Peace with India might provide it the much needed time and space to resolve its internal matters and work towards the development of its capacities and capabilities. However, unlike in 1999, the Indian leadership is very suspicious of the erratic temperament of its neighbour and is unwilling to make the same mistakes as its predecessor. A more confident and economically powerful India is willing to resolve issues gradually with diplomacy and dialogue instead of jumping at such offers of friendship. The Indian construct of itself as an imposing regional guardian and a rising global power might benefit Pakistan in its endeavors, provided they are sincere.
Islamabad should understand that, in the current global architecture, it must tread carefully. National interests have superseded international obligations and, unless an institution is too large to fail, finding allies will be an arduous task. While Sharif’s statement could pave the way for initiating talks, Islamabad needs to take a leaf out of its own book and form coherent and secure domestic institutions before it engages with external actors and leaders. The friction between the civilian and military leaderships has disrupted many attempts towards the country’s growth and development and will continue to do so unless effectively addressed.
Needless to say, the Subcontinental equation is detrimental to the participants as well as the world at large. If Islamabad has truly learnt its lessons, it must make its actions consistent with its words and work towards clearing the atmosphere of mistrust and deception.
Tanya Vatsa, a law graduate from National Law University, Lucknow and an incoming LLM candidate at the University of Edinburgh, is a former assistant advocate. She is currently a geopolitical analyst with The Synergia Foundation, an India-based think tank. Her writing on international relations has been published by the Diplomatist, International Policy Digest and The Kootneeti