Neighbours should never stop talking. It’s as axiomatic as former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s sage counsel that you can change your friends, but not your neighbours. Uninterrupted dialogue is the sine qua non of good neighbourliness. Dialogue should continue even when neighbouring countries are not on good terms with each other. Indeed, dialogue at multiple levels – people-to-people, between government leaders, diplomats, traders and business groups, scholars, artists, sportspersons, and so on – is indispensable for changing the relations from bad to good, from unfriendly to friendly. The alternative to talking is fighting wars, and wars have consequences that are rarely positive.
All this is true. But strange are the ways the governments of India and Pakistan conduct their relations. Just how strange – indeed, how bizarre – is something we will soon know when the foreign ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meet in Goa on May 4 and 5. With New Delhi assuming the rotating presidency of this multilateral organisation this year, it has invited Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari to participate in the meeting, which he has accepted. But if you think this will mark the resumption of long-stalled dialogue between India and Pakistan, and thus break the ice in their frozen relations, you will be disappointed. In all probability, there will be no bilateral meeting between Bhutto and his Indian host, Dr S Jaishankar, on the sidelines of the SCO event. If – and this too is a big if – the two ministers simply shake hands and exchange a few pleasantries, it would have exceeded everyone’s expectations.
Ahead of the Goa meeting, both sides have already dampened expectations to the lowest possible level. Pakistan’s foreign minister has stated that “this visit should not be seen as a bilateral”. His participation, he has sought to explain, reflects “Pakistan’s continued commitment to the SCO charter and process along with the importance that Pakistan accords to the region in its foreign policy priorities”. As if the SCO charter bars any two member countries from having a bilateral meeting. The very first goal in the charter is “to strengthen mutual trust, friendship and good neighbourliness between the Member States”. When asked if there will be a separate meeting with Bhutto, Jaishankar has virtually ruled it out by saying, “It is very difficult for us to engage with a neighbour who practices cross-border terrorism against us.”
Why have India-Pakistan governmental attitudes become so inflexible as to leave no scope for readiness to avail even rare opportunities? The blame must be shared by both sides. For long, Islamabad has made meaningful dialogue with New Delhi conditional upon the resolution of the Kashmir dispute. Its own condition for dialogue on the dispute has changed widely over the decades, depending on who has been at the helm of the government and sometimes within the tenure of the same ruler. Thus, its demands have varied from insistence on a plebiscite under the UNSC resolution of 1948 to, most recently, rolling back the decisions taken by the Indian Parliament on 5 August 2019.
The first demand has become irrelevant over time, and due to the enormous changes in the geopolitical realities in the geography of the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir state, not the least of which is the fact that a part of Ladakh and also Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) is now under Chinese control. Bhutto himself has recently admitted that Pakistan is facing “an uphill task” in getting the Kashmir issue onto the agenda of the United Nations. As regards the second demand, India will never accept it because Article 370 in the Indian Constitution, or its abrogation, are its sovereign internal matters.
No less impractical are India’s claims on the Kashmir dispute. The assertions by leading functionaries of Narendra Modi’s government that India will not rest until it takes back the lost territories of J&K are as unrealistic as many Pakistani politicians’ prophesy that the Indian side of Kashmir would someday become either independent or merge with Pakistan. India will never be able to wrest PoK back from Pakistan and Aksai Chin from China. Both LoC and LAC are now cast in stone.
Therefore, instead of continuing with their respective futile positions on Kashmir, both India and Pakistan should accept this unchangeable ground reality and explore new ways of achieving good neighbourliness. In this context, Pakistan must irreversibly abandon yet another futile pursuit – trying to destabilise and dismember India by promoting Islamic extremism and terrorism in Kashmir and elsewhere. This strategy has not only not succeeded, but has indeed backfired on Pakistan. The instigator of cross-border terrorism has now become its major victim. Pakistan’s young foreign minister would certainly know. In 1979, his grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s former prime minister, was hanged on the orders of General Zia-ul-Haq, the military dictator who set the country on the dangerous path of Islamisation. His mother, Benazir Bhutto, also a former prime minister, was assassinated in a terror attack in 2007.
Therefore, India is right in insisting that Pakistan end its sponsorship of terror. However, India is wrong in making this a pretext for the near-total cessation of relations with Pakistan. Let me explain why. Right now, India’s relations with another neighbour, China, are facing a grave crisis. Many in India see China as the greatest strategic threat. Regardless of whether this perception is right or wrong, the fact remains that India has not stopped engaging China on multiple levels. Even after the Galwan Valley conflict in June 2020, in which 22 Indian soldiers were killed, Jaishankar has met his Chinese counterparts, first Wang Yi and then his successor Qin Gang, on more than one occasion in Beijing, New Delhi and elsewhere. This being the case, why shouldn’t he meet Bhutto in Goa?
Three Potential Gains From Resumption Of Indo-Pak Dialogue
For sure, the complete normalisation of Indo-Pak relations remains a distant dream. But should we not try and achieve several mutually beneficial outcomes through the resumption of talks? Here are three such undeniable gains.
One: The prolonged tension along the LAC has not stopped India-China bilateral trade from rising to an unprecedented level of $136 billion from $86 billion in 2020. India’s own imports have grown from $65 billion to over $100 billion in the past three years. In contrast, India’s trade with Pakistan has stagnated at less than $400 million. Pakistan’s economy is in a precarious condition. Just how precarious is evident from the fact that Maharashtra’s state GDP alone ($425 billion) is higher than that of Pakistan ($376 billion). Therefore, Pakistan can gain considerably from closer economic cooperation with India, which will benefit our economy too. Moreover, this will reduce Islamabad’s excessive dependence on Beijing, which is in Pakistan’s own interest.
Two: By doggedly continuing with its “no-engagement with Pakistan” policy, the Modi government is not quite advancing India’s national interests either in the South Asian region or in the wider Asian or global contexts. Consider this. New Delhi’s “Terror and talks can’t go together” stance has completely immobilised the SAARC process. The last summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation took place in Nepal in 2014. There has been no subsequent SAARC summit because the Indian prime minister has refused to travel to Pakistan, which is its next host.
SAARC’s loss has been SCO’s gain. In other words, India’s loss has been China’s gain. Whereas India has virtually killed a regional forum in which it could have played a leading role, it has allowed a China-sponsored forum to become influential not only in South Asia but also in the larger Asian and Eurasian landmass. Isn’t it ironic that, whereas both India and Pakistan come together at SCO meets, they don’t meet either bilaterally or in the SAARC framework? Therefore, the revival of SAARC is absolutely necessary to improve Indo-Pak ties and also to promote greater regional cooperation, integration and solidarity in our immediate neighbourhood.
Three: In the aftermath of the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan in August 2021, why are India and Pakistan working at cross-purposes in that hapless war-torn country? Doesn’t Afghanistan present a good opportunity for our two countries to work together for peace, stability and common prosperity in the region? The undeniable truth is this: Neither Pakistan can succeed in keeping India out of Afghanistan, nor does India ignore Pakistan’s importance in securing a better future for Afghanistan. Therefore, instead of trying to harm each other in Kabul, and incurring heavy losses in the process, our two countries should develop a convergent strategy to benefit our common civilizational neighbour – and also benefit ourselves.
Finally, here is a specific suggestion for the SCO meeting in Goa. In 2017, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took Narendra Modi for a stroll along Olga Beach on the Mediterranean Sea. “There’s nothing like going to the beach with friends,” Netanyahu had written on Twitter with a photograph that became very famous.
Jaishankar should similarly take Bhutto, who certainly has a promising future in Pakistani politics, for a leisurely walk on one of Goa’s balmy beaches. He should tell himself, and his guest, that Pakistan is enormously more important for India’s future than Israel ever will be. To kick-start people-to-people exchanges, the two ministers could even consider launching a joint project to celebrate the little-known Goan connection between India and Pakistan. There were more than 15,000 Goans in Karachi, Bhutto’s home city, in the 1950s, and they made an important contribution to Karachi’s culture and development.
I know Jaishankar and Bhutto will do nothing of the kind. Therefore, let’s keep our expectations to the bare minimum and hope they will at least shake hands at the SCO meet in Goa.
(The writer was an aide to India’s former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.