Imran’s rigidity a hurdle in the way of maintaining peace on our borders
Tensions with Pakistan have been a continuing feature of India’s problems in its neighbourhood. Are we, however, seeing after a long time, the emergence of a ‘Naya Pakistan’, with its perennially hostile military, favouring a cooling of tensions with India? There has been a feeling in recent days that there are good reasons for cautious optimism in India and Pakistan that the two countries could negotiate ways to live in peace. Most Indians feel that for the past four years, India is dealing with one of the most opinionated politicians in Pakistan — Imran Khan. His Tehreek-e-Insaf Party was ideologically moulded by the anti-India, former ISI chief, Lt Gen Hamid Gul.
China has naturally regarded Imran Khan’s anti-India diatribes as a blessing. It complements the daily dose of anti-India rhetoric dished out by Beijing’s official mouthpiece, the Global Times. All this is having an impact within Pakistan, where there are many who understand the urgent need for economic realism to meet challenges posed by the pandemic. Pakistanis would surely have noted that while their foreign exchange reserves have dwindled to a mere $14.8 billion, Bangladesh, whose people have traditionally been looked down upon by their erstwhile West Pakistani brethren, has steadily growing foreign exchange reserves of $44 billion. Bangladesh has overtaken Pakistan in virtually every financial, social and economic indicator, within half a century of its birth in 1971.
There are now many in Pakistan who believe that it is imperative to focus on economic development with their neighbours. Pakistan army chief General Bajwa, who, like his predecessors, is Pakistan’s de facto ruler, called for measures to boost intra-regional trade and connectivity. A few days earlier, the DGMOs of India and Pakistan had reached an agreement on a ceasefire across the LoC. Meanwhile, the economic coordination committee of Imran Khan’s cabinet, headed by Finance Minister Hammad Azar, recommended that trade with India needed to be resumed to revive the economy.
The cabinet rejected the recommendations of the committee the very next day. Those leading the rejectionists included minister for human rights Shireen Mazari, who has a track record of vitriolic anti-Indian writings and pronouncements, SM Qureshi, the hawkish minister for foreign affairs, and Sheikh Rashid, the interior minister. Mazari asserted: ‘The cabinet stated clearly that there could be no trade with India. The Prime Minister made it clear there can be no normalisation of relations with India, until they reverse their illegal actions of August 5, 2019, on Jammu and Kashmir’. Imran Khan appears determined to ridicule what was an action to cool temperatures in relations with India, initiated by General Bajwa. He was, thereby, sending the message that he remained a ‘hawk’ on J&K. This will, no doubt, please Bajwa’s rivals in the army, who reportedly include the ISI chief, Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, who is in the running to succeed Bajwa. The ISI chief is, no doubt, pledging eternal loyalty to the army chief at the same time.
While his actions may have enabled Imran Khan to strengthen his position amongst those opposed to General Bajwa, he could well find that he has opened the doors for his political opponents like Asif Ali Zardari of the PPP and Maulana Fazlur Rahman of the JUI, who has conservative, Islamist support within Pakistan, to pose a serious political challenge. Imran Khan remembers that in his early days in politics, he had the strong army support to pose challenges to his then rival, Nawaz Sharif. Even as his present relations with General Bajwa are not as cordial as they were earlier, he is making sure that he retains support in the higher echelons of the army. He is, at the same time, working to convince US President Joe Biden that he will facilitate a smooth withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, while remaining a trusted loyalist of Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. Both China and Russia have their eyes on Afghanistan’s immense resources.
India needs to play its cards skilfully in this complex scenario. National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, who was posted in our embassy in Islamabad in the early 1980s, developed a perceptive understanding of the complexities of the internal situation in Pakistan. The two countries should have ambassadors in each other’s capital as a first step, for any move forward. It is only natural for Doval to continue guiding any ‘back channel’ negotiations. India’s highly respected, former High Commissioner to Pakistan, Satinder Lambah, did a commendable job as Special Envoy in his ‘back channel’ meetings with General Musharraf’s confidant, Tariq Aziz, after the 2003 Kashmir ceasefire. That entire dialogue process was undermined by Gen Ashfaq Kayani, who succeeded Musharraf as army chief. Imran Khan would be well advised to study details of those talks, instead of shooting from the hip. That dialogue was based on then PM Manmohan Singh’s simple proposition: ‘Borders cannot be redrawn, but we can work towards making borders irrelevant — towards making them just lines on a map’. He added: ‘People on both sides of the Line of Control should be able to move freely and trade with one another’.
The way ahead for maintaining peace on our borders is going to the complex. One hopes that the Biden administration will show wisdom and foresight by ending sanctions on Iran. Teheran has a vital stake in seeing that its eastern borders with Afghanistan are not administered by ISI-backed, Wahhabi-oriented fundamentalists. Democratic processes can be revived in J&K with the revival of statehood for the Jammu region and the Kashmir valley, when the situation stabilises. Pakistan will have to be cautioned by those desiring peace and stability against any effort to resume infiltration across the LoC. This process can also be facilitated if China ends its efforts for ‘salami slicing’ of Indian territory in Ladakh.