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Will backchannel talks with Pakistan yield an outcome The Statesman 21 Jun 2022
In a recent address, Bilawal Bhutto, the Pak foreign minister, questioned diplomatic disengagement with India. He stated, ‘We have practically cut off all engagement (with India). Does it serve our objective.’ The foreign office was quick to comment that his statement has been quoted out of context and Pakistan’s policy towards India remains unchanged. Sometime back, Pak PM, Shehbaz Sharif, while speaking to the Turkish media stated, ‘we are cognizant of the economic dividends which can be accrued from a healthy trade activity with India.’
Simultaneously media reports mention that backchannel dialogue, also termed as Track II or Track III diplomacy, are ongoing between India and Pakistan, aimed at breaking the existing impasse. There has been no formal dialogue since Modi visited Nawaz in Lahore in 2015. Relations further deteriorated after India withdrew Article 370 in Kashmir, in Aug 2019. Fall in diplomatic ties is such that High Commissioners have been withdrawn, and strength reduced in missions. It was backchannel dialogue which led to both nations simultaneously announcing a ceasefire along the LOC in Feb 2021, which continues to hold.
Ongoing Track diplomacy is also intended at finding common ground so that both, Modi and Shehbaz Sharif, expected to be present at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit, scheduled in Tashkent in mid-July, could formally break the impasse. Such an opportunity may not be forthcoming thereafter. Third party mediation has been ruled out by India and the atmosphere does not support bilateral visits.
Despite everything, Pakistan is a nuclear-powered neighbour aligned with China, as also a historical adversary, fuelling unrest in Kashmir, hence, will remain on the Indian radar. Resolution of disputes through dialogue will benefit both nations. In the present environment such a thought is utopian.
India desires talks sans support to terrorist groups and judicial action against those responsible for terrorist strikes in India. S Jaishankar recently commented, ‘We will not be brought to talk using the instrument of terrorism.’ Pakistan, had till 2019, desired talks while denying Indian conditions however placing an additional rider to include the Hurriyat as official representatives of the Kashmiri population. Further, the Pak army made dialogue redundant with terrorist strikes. Hence, talks always stalled.
Since abrogation of article 370 and the Hurriyat being rendered ineffective, Pakistan’s conditions have changed. It has demanded reinstatement of article 370 as an essential prelude, dropping its demand to include the Hurriyat, while denying support to terrorism. Imran placed these conditions and with an unstable Shehbaz in the chair, it is unlikely anything will change. Pakistan unites on only two issues, an anti-India or anti-US sentiment. Any government displaying a pro/neutral India policy could, as Nawaz did, face political backlash. Currently, Imran accuses Shehbaz of the same.
Pakistan is aware that relations with India are essential for its survival, whether it be release of water as per the Indus Water Treaty, supply of cotton for its garment industry, medicines, sugar and even wheat to make up its shortfalls. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor can only succeed if utilized by India. The Pakistan business community has been harping on opening trade with India, but governments hesitate, solely to display an anti-India image.
Pakistan is currently importing 2 million tonnes of wheat from Russia, though, has yet to determine a payment mechanism. Internal sale prices can never be raised, further taxing its economy. Last year Pak was compelled to import sugar from global markets, solely because Imran refused to budge from his Article 370 demand. Indian Medical products are sent to Pak via the Middle East, adding to cost. India exports wheat and sugar across the world, hence, not supplying to Pak does not impact its sales. Post the Ukraine crisis, the world is banking on Indian wheat.
Diplomatically, Pakistan is low on the Indian engagement list. India considers it an irritant such that it refuses to comment on Pakistan’s internal constitutional crises. Balakote has ensured Pak limits its terrorist activities. India’s global stature has led to it looking beyond Pakistan and South Asia, though it continues to support neighbours in need. The financial and logistic support provided to Sri Lanka is a case in point.
The scenario for Pakistan is vastly different. It is struggling to avoid falling into a debt trap, surviving on loans and doles, from the IMF, China and West Asia. China, its staunchest ally, exploits it when most needed. China has, after considerable discussion, agreed to refinance Pak with USD 2.3 Billion, with multiple riders. Further, since the takeover of Kabul by the Taliban and withdrawal of the US, Pakistan’s global importance as a frontline state has receded. Pro-Taliban comments by its politicians, including Imran Khan and Qureshi, have led to the world considering Pak a terrorist supporting state. Pakistan has nothing to offer the world but everything to take.
In such a bleak scenario, Pak cannot look beyond its nose. It has no global voice and no ability to influence the region. Thus, it is compelled to comment on India’s internal matters including Kashmir, minorities, religious statements and political decisions, all of which the Indian government ignores. However, Pakistan’s Kashmir fixation and support to terrorism remains a stumbling block in bilateral ties. With terrorism failing, Pak has shifted focus to targeted killing of innocents, narco-terrorism and inciting few disgruntled elements still supporting Khalistan. This has further vitiated the atmosphere.
If the ongoing Track diplomacy has to achieve a breakthrough, one side would have to bend. For India, Article 370 is a no-discussion zone, while for Pak it is stopping terrorism in Kashmir. India could offer statehood for J and K post elections, while Pakistan could re-commence Mumbai terrorist attack trials. Alternatively both could send positive messages. One option is reappointing high commissioners and Pak requesting India for supply of wheat or sugar.
An added dilemma facing the Modi government is instability of Shehbaz. India is hesitant to invest time with a Pak PM who could be sidelined any day. Further, talks may yield no outcome since Shehbaz does not possess political power to push decisions in a fractured government. Hence, in all likelihood, Tashkent will be another missed opportunity.