By Amit Dasgupta*
India-Pakistan relations have oscillated over the past 70 years between uneasy calm and open hostility, including wars.
For Islamabad, the initial narrative on bilateral relations, based entirely on a religious divide, shifted dramatically after the liberation of East Pakistan and the emergence of sovereign independent Bangladesh. The tipping point lay in the all-consuming defeat at the hands of the Indian military, both on the eastern and western fronts and the abject surrender of Pakistan’s so-called ‘crack troops’ in a brief war that is part of military folklore. Thereafter, for Islamabad, anti-India policies were no longer just religion-driven but became a matter of izzat, or self-pride.
I recall a Pakistani diplomat telling me that his father was among the soldiers, who had marched through the streets of Karachi along with the other soldiers who had surrendered to Indian troops. They stoically bore the abuses hurled at them by common Pakistanis for the humiliation suffered through the loss of East Pakistan. This would not be forgiven or forgotten by the next generation, he had told me. I believe him.
The military has continued to portray India as an enemy state and ‘normalcy’ in relations would emerge only when loss of territory is avenged. This is integral to Islamabad’s revenge game plan, for as long as the military establishment determines Pakistan’s future. They believe it to be their moral obligation to truncate India through the ‘liberation’ of Kashmir. Only this would balance the equation in their view.
Under the circumstances, for India, negotiating a peaceful relationship with Pakistan lacks realism. A series of genuine efforts, driven by political support, have been made for seven decades, which have yielded no results. For Islamabad, failed talks are part of its strategy. Nor is the situation likely to change, unless there is a dramatic shift in strategy and compulsion.
The negotiations are marred by a number of factors:
First, negotiations, which successfully conclude, must be based on mutual trust. This is clearly absent. A severe trust deficit characterised the relationship since 1947 and was further aggravated by the Bangladesh war, which was reinforced after India signed the 123 Agreement with the US to the exclusion of Pakistan. This is not likely to change.
Second, negotiations are between equals. The loss of Bangladesh dramatically shifted the balance. The relationship has become asymmetric. Furthermore, the image both countries enjoy varies significantly: While India is seen as a rising global power, Pakistan is widely perceived as a troubled and troubling state.
Third, negotiators know their dialogue partners and thus, who is sitting across the table. India is forced to negotiate with the civilian government while being fully cognizant that it is the military, which is negotiating from behind the curtain. For New Delhi, it would be self-defeating to bypass the civilian government and initiate open dialogue with the military. This is a particularly challenging dilemma and will persist.
Fourth, inequality in relations forces the lesser side to seek balance through external means. For decades, Islamabad was Washington’s blue-eyed baby. This was especially apparent during the Bangladesh war when the US sent the Seventh Fleet to pressure New Delhi. When Indo-US relations saw a dramatic improvement, Islamabad shifted its allegiance and found a strong ally in Beijing. Islamabad also reached out to Moscow. Both developments will dramatically impact India’s strategic interests.
The onus lies on India to rebalance the situation because the status quo is not in New Delhi’s interest. To negotiate with the non-negotiator, New Delhi needs to recognise that talks succeed only when you talk with the puppeteer and not the puppet. This means identifying who is making the puppet dance. Given recent developments, New Delhi’s dialogue partners need to be Beijing and Moscow, and no longer Islamabad. This is the strategic shift that Indian foreign and security policy needs to urgently make. It would, however, come with its challenges. But the dividends would be significant.
India’s time-tested friendship with Moscow, for instance, had shown serious cracks over the last couple of years, since New Delhi was perceived by Moscow as increasingly seeking proximity to the West at the cost of old friends and allies. Russian President Vladimir Putin conveyed his displeasure through multiple means, including agreeing to a defence relationship with Islamabad. Attempts at correcting the perception were made but winning back aggrieved friends takes time and persistence. This is not impossible. Indeed, if India wins back Moscow’s confidence, it would be predominantly in India’s interest.
Beijing would, however, pose a different challenge. It has shown utter disregard for India’s concerns, almost as if it were baiting India to retaliate. For Beijing, India is an irritant. Indeed, through 2016, China has repeatedly taken positions that are inimical to Indian interests. This is not likely to change in the immediate future because, in Beijing’s calculus, India could emerge as a serious threat, given the proximity it has begun to enjoy with the US and its allies, and more importantly, its ability to emerge as an economic powerhouse.
Beijing’s behaviour should come as no surprise to New Delhi or, indeed, to any Sinologist. Beijing pursues policies of self-interest even at the cost of estranging international opinion. It has repeatedly demonstrated this. It is able to do so because it is able to get away with it. The South China Sea dispute is a clear example of the contempt with which it holds international or regional criticism. Transfer of nuclear technology to Islamabad is another example.
At the same time, New Delhi has consistently shown inexplicable sensitivity to Beijing’s concerns and opposed any and all action that could annoy Beijing. In return, New Delhi received nothing. To a large extent, this is because the relationship is acutely imbalanced. Today, the international scenario has dramatically changed and New Delhi enjoys the liberty of re-crafting a new China policy that keeps its strategic interests foremost rather than Beijing’s sense of insecurity.
To do this, New Delhi needs to recognise the strategic difference between a policy shift and childish provocative statements or actions. What works better is if we were to convey to Beijing that it is in their strategic interest to have a reliable and stable India as a potential partner rather than a fragile and unpredictable Islamabad.
This can be achieved only if India emerges as a serious economic player. What we urgently need are deep economic reforms, significant improvements in the ease of doing business, rapid infrastructural developments, and a substantive focus on education and skilling. All of these would attract global FDIs and international capital. It would directly impact GDP and employability. If India achieves this, it would emerge as the economic counter pivot in Asia and finally be in a position to renegotiate its relations with Beijing. Till then, Islamabad will call the shots through Beijing.
The time has come for India to re-work its Beijing policy and, thereafter, shift its negotiating strategy with Islamabad. However, this would require strong political will: commitment and persistence. The point is that it can be done.
*Amit Dasgupta is a former Indian diplomat. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent to [email protected]