Why PM Modi and Gen Bajwa mean business with India-Pakistan peace talks. Nothing else matters

Why PM Modi and Gen Bajwa mean business with India-Pakistan peace talks. Nothing else matters

This story first appeared in The Print

What can India and Pakistan give each other to save face? This jockeying for a framework of give-and-take is likely what’s going on today.

It’s been a week since Pakistan went back on its decision to open up trade with India, stalling a move to normalise ties spearheaded by none other than the powerful army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and Prime Minister Imran Khan. Four ministers, each of them a creature of the military establishment, stood up to their Prime Minister and the man representing the Pakistan Army, to whom they owe their lives in politics.

Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Minister for Human Rights Shireen Mazari, Minister for Railways Sheikh Rashid, and Minister for Planning Asad Umar – none of them would be in power for even a day if the benevolent hand of the military establishment was not on their head.

So, how did these four ministers dare to do this?

Therein hangs a long tale coloured with several smokescreens, feints, double-crosses, as well as the ability to play both sides — shorthand for the fog of war. And then there is the possibility that the military establishment is divided between Gen Bajwa and his ISI chief, Gen Faiz Hameed – which means that one part of Imran Khan’s government is paying its dues to the past and the other to the future.

Changes in the diplomatic landscape

A certain feverish pace has infiltrated both India and Pakistan since Bajwa called upon them to “bury the past and move forward” in a speech on 18 March. Prime Minister Narendra Modi rapidly followed that up with a letter to Imran Khan, wishing Pakistan best wishes on its national day on 23 March.

Now, it is rumoured that the two high commissioners to Delhi and Islamabad could be exchanged sooner than later, and both high commissions restored to full strength — right now they are working at half their capacity.

Ajay Bisaria, who was expelled from Pakistan after 5 August 2019 — when the Modi government changed the status of Jammu & Kashmir and integrated it with the Union — and is now India’s high commissioner to Canada, may return to Pakistan. The other name on the cards is India’s ambassador to China, Vikram Misri, who has formerly served in Islamabad as a political counsellor.

On Pakistan’s side, the two names in circulation are Pakistan’s ambassador to India Moin ul Haque, who had been seconded to go to India but was diverted to Beijing after 5 August 2019, as well as Pakistan’s high commissioner to Canada Raza Bashir Tarar. He is the brother of the well-known Pakistani journalist Mehr Tarar.

Political observers in both India and Pakistan say the “storm in the tea-cup” associated with Pakistan’s reversal of its own Cabinet’s decision last week on importing sugar and yarn and cotton from India must be treated as exactly that.

These sources said that Gen Bajwa’s call to improve ties was based on the clear-headed realisation that neither Pakistan nor India could afford to remain in a state of hostility for much longer. And while he was certainly not getting involved in export-import of goods from India, whether of sugar or cotton, he had clearly argued that “the Kashmir issue is obviously at the heart of this” improved relationship.

Certainly, the Pakistani Cabinet’s statement that conditions any future improvement in the relationship with India going back to the pre-5 August 2019 position complicates matters. But PM Modi’s message of goodwill to Imran Khan, as well as get-well-soon wishes to Kashmiri leader Farooq Abdullah — remember that he had gone to meet the PM to ask about rumours that Article 370 was going to be revoked just before troops moved into the valley, and the PM had demurred — are already being seen as a precursor to steps that India will be taking in Kashmir.

Along with the restoration of 4G internet connectivity in J&K and the release of political prisoners, Delhi is said to be contemplating a series of steps in the Valley that could make it easier for Pakistan to climb down and seize the moment.

Pakistan’s internal warfare

So why did the four Pakistani Cabinet ministers undermine their own PM and army chief by voting against the resumption of trade?

First of all, it is being speculated that the military establishment isn’t the uniform group it is made out to be; that Bajwa supports PM Imran Khan, but that his colleagues, including ISI chief Faiz Hameed, may support other people in Imran’s Cabinet like Shah Mehmood Qureshi. If this is true, then the internecine warfare in Pakistan’s Cabinet meeting last week is perfectly understandable.

Second, the reversal makes it seem as if civilians, not the military, are really in charge in Pakistan — a smokescreen the establishment in Rawalpindi wants the rest of the world to see.

Third, since the Army is really in charge of the India policy in Pakistan, it may have wanted to see how the Nawaz Sharif and the Zardari-Bhutto opposition, who have spent long years trying to make peace with India, was going to react. In fact, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, a former PM and member of the Nawaz Sharif Muslim League, has said that the nation “won’t accept any bargain on Kashmir.”

Fourth, Gen Bajwa could be testing the waters to see how far the Indian side is willing to go to sustain peace — is India, for example, willing to stand the heat of an American withdrawal from Afghanistan and the consequent vacuum being filled by Pakistan?

And fifth, what can India do to sweeten the Kashmir pill for Pakistan? Fact is, Bajwa & Co understand that the Modi government is not returning to the pre-5 August 2019 position in Kashmir, but have still engaged in talks with Delhi. And now that the talks are stalled over the import of sugar and cotton, what can Delhi do to change Rawalpindi’s mind?

A fraught history

The thing about the India-Pakistan story is that history presents itself not just as tragedy and farce, but also as a series of missed opportunities. Only 20 years ago, in July 2001, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had invited former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf to Agra to make peace – Vajpayee has since passed away and Musharraf lives in exile in Dubai. Only two generations of Indians and Pakistanis have in the interim reached adulthood. The anniversary of that event will soon be upon us.

Three years later, in January 2004, Vajpayee was travelling to Islamabad to shake hands with the man he had spurned in Agra – soon, the Indian cricket team was playing in Pakistan and Pakistanis were opening their homes to unknown visitors from across the border and shopkeepers were refusing to take money for wares these visitors had bought. There was high hope in the air, an excitement that the borders would soon become transparent.

By 2007, Musharraf and Manmohan Singh were ready to make peace with a 4-point plan for Kashmir – but the lawyers’ movement in Pakistan came in the way, Musharraf was soon toppled, and two years later Benazir Bhutto was assassinated.

The start-stop-start during the Modi years is far too well-known to be recounted, but the moral of the story is that if India believes it is South Asia’s biggest power, then it must take responsibility for peace in South Asia. Far too many years have been lost in trying to punish a recalcitrant neighbour. Meanwhile, China has moved in.

It’s still unclear what exactly has paved the way for this most recent bout of back-channel talks – but because it’s so welcome, no one’s really asking. Ordinary people on both sides of the border, who have little to do with the high-jinks of politics, wonder why we just can’t have normal relations and do normal things like travel, make friends, and discover new things.

For those getting older, the sense that both countries are running out of time is getting stronger. Next year, when India celebrates 75 years of its Independence with PM Modi at the helm, there will be no escaping the thought that the vivisection of ‘Akhand Bharat,’ as the RSS describes the pre-1947 nation, was accompanied by the forced migration of about 17 million people on both sides and the killings of about one million.

A carnage like that is even rarer than a pandemic. And yet, Indians — Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs — thought nothing of killing, raping, and destroying relationships built over centuries. Can both nations, in 2022, finally move on from the holocaust of 1947?

Is that what Ajit Doval and Gen Bajwa, widely believed to be the interlocutors of the India-Pakistan back-channel, are doing?

Some say Pakistan is looking for a face-saver in Kashmir – say, a return to statehood, which would mean that an elected government comes to power. While Delhi has no aversion to this roadmap, it is more than likely that statehood in Kashmir is a culmination, rather than the beginning, of peace negotiations between India and Pakistan.

So what could India and Pakistan give each other today, which would help both sides save face and declare victory? This jockeying for a framework of give-and-take, of mapping the contours of a deal – that’s what is likely going on today.

One thing is clear. Both PM Modi and Gen Bajwa mean business. Nothing – and no one else — matters.

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About Jyoti Malhotra

Jyoti Malhotra is Editor, National & Strategic Affairs of The Print website in Delhi. She has been a journalist for 35 years and has worked for India's major news media, including the Indian Express, the Times of India and Star News. She has reported in both Hindi and English and consulted for several foreign media. She lives in New Delhi. contact email : [email protected]