Most importantly for Islamabad, will the next government in Delhi agree to revive the broad based ‘composite’ dialogue, suspended since early 2013? Or will it persist with an approach that limits the bandwidth of talks by cherry picking issues of India’s priority in an effort to recast the terms of engagement?
Clear answers to these questions will obviously emerge after the elections. But Pakistan will have to carefully think through the strategyit should adopt to engage the new government and ensure result-oriented dialogue that helps to build stable relations. As of now, all outstanding disputes and irritants between the two countries are in a state of deadlock while the contribution trade liberalisation can make to steadier relations remains untested.
Even if Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government moves to grant India Non-Discriminatory Market Access (a more politically acceptable term for MFN) ahead of the election, it is not certain how the next government will reciprocate and whether this will serve as a catalyst for resumption of the comprehensive peace process that Islamabad has long sought.
Many Indian analysts argue that irrespective of who wins the election, the fundamentals of India’s policy towards Pakistan will not change. That may be true. But the shape, character and stability of the next government will have a bearing on how Delhi conducts future business with Pakistan. An election widely depicted as being more about stronger leadership than new policy, would still influence the stance Delhi adopts towards Pakistan.
It might, therefore, be useful to consider the possibilities that might emerge from the election. The least likely is a Congress win. With a tenure marred by corruption scandals, an economic slowdown, and infirm leadership, Congress seems headed for a historic defeat on the back of a strong anti-incumbency wave. Even if the party makes a miraculous comeback and is able to cobble together a coalition it would be a weak government denuded of the capacity to take major policy initiatives.
Pakistan would then see continuation of a start-stop pattern of diplomatic engagement that would mimic that of the recent past. There would be movement on trade but no substantial progress on the contentious issues that divide the two countries and have served to stall trade liberalisation efforts in the recent past.
Opinion polls strongly support the second possibility – the Bharatiya Janata Party emerging as the largest party in a campaign dominated by its controversial prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, but falling short of a majority of 272 in the 543-member Lok Sabha. A BJP-led coalition could be built if the party secures around 175 seats. Modi’s premiership would be guaranteed if BJP musters 200 seats or more, enabling it to forge alliances with regional or smaller parties on its terms.
Winning less than 150 sets will mean the BJP would have to concede more to regional allies many of whom have serious misgivings about Modi’s past record and personality and would insist on a leader other than him to head the coalition.
What would a Modi-led government mean for relations with Pakistan? Many here argue that having previously dealt with a BJP government, Pakistan might find it ‘easier’ to manage relations with India under a strong, right-wing government, not on the defensive at home on Pakistan policy and able to make diplomatic compromises. But there are too many unknowns about Modi, a polarising politician in his country – and about his foreign policy team – to support such a sanguine view.
Even if Modi’s domestic economic priorities persuade him to enhance economic ties with Pakistan, his reputation for ‘muscular nationalism’ will urge him towards a harder line on contentious issues, especially Kashmir. Under Modi, even disputes regarded as low hanging fruit, such as Sir Creek, would see little progress.
A third possibility indicated by the rising influence of regional parties and formation of an 11-party Third Front (comprising leftist and regional parties) is a non-BJP, non-Congress coalition government similar to that led by Deve Gowda in 1996 and subsequently by IK Gujral. Although the Front includes leaders like Nitish Kumar it is unlikely to win enough seats.
It could, however, hold the balance of power in a coalition supported by Congress. Even so, it would be a fragile arrangement unlikely to last long. Under such a shaky government there will be little expectation of significant progress much less any breakthroughs in Pakistan-India relations.
Each of these possibilities will oblige Islamabad to evolve a differentiated and carefully calibrated diplomatic response. But a more fundamental challenge lies ahead. This is if the new government chooses an approach similar to that followed by Delhi in recent years – of selective engagement on issues of priority to India while ruling out renewal of the comprehensive eight-issue process, known as the ‘composite’ dialogue.
Despite Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s many positive signals and calls for an early restoration of the broad gauge peace process, Delhi’s posture remained unchanged during 2013 and beyond. It only agreed to meetings – as between the commerce ministers last month – outside that framework in an attempt to narrow the scope of diplomatic engagement. Normalisation, in other words, was acceptable if it proceeded piecemeal and not as an across-the-board process.
Pakistan went along with this approach in a spirit designed to preserve the momentum of normalisation. But a new government in Delhi will present an opportunity for a reset in ties. Islamabad will therefore have to re-evaluate how long it will accommodate a selective engagement approach if there is no Indian reciprocity on restoring the broader dialogue.
In several recent track II meetings with former Indian officials the impression they conveyed was that there is no traction among their policy community for a revival of the composite dialogue. Instead there is a marked preference for limited engagement on issues prioritised by India.
Dialogue, yes; normalisation, yes, but reconfigured on India’s terms. Movement on trade would be fine, as would dialogue on terrorism and maintaining tranquillity on the Line of Control – but these issues would be addressed individually and not as part of a wider normalisation framework.
Some here might argue that partial normalisation is better than none so why not press ahead with selective engagement – trade after all benefits Pakistan too. This view overestimates the role trade alone can play to power a peace process in a strategic environment that remains fraught and prone to tensions.
There are several reasons why a fragmented dialogue will not achieve genuine or enduring normalisation and place relations on a steadier track. The most fundamental is sustainability. Past experience testifies that moves to open up trade are often set back or stall due to non-trade factors – incidents on the Line of Control in Kashmir are the latest example of this.
To be sustainable, building economic ties also requires addressing issues of discord between the two countries, which periodically and inevitably spark tensions and cause normalisation to regress. Also trade ties will not achieve their full potential unless contentious areas are simultaneously tackled.
It will be a mistake to settle for a fragmented or partial normalisation process. The comprehensive eight-issue framework drawn up in 1997, during Prime Minister Sharif’s second term, endured because it reflected the priorities and concerns of both sides. This process was sustained from 2004 to 2008 and then again in 2011-12.
It enabled multi-layered talks on a range of issues and helped to create a web of multiple interactions between various ministries. Although the composite process yielded no dramatic breakthroughs and only a modest set of confidence building measures, discarding this framework would mean losing even the incremental progress that was made.
The renewal of a full-fledged comprehensive peace process remains the most viable means to manage differences and build on areas of convergence between the two neighbours. Limiting the bilateral engagement to a single track will neither build sustainable economic ties nor make longstanding differences go away.
The writer is special adviser to the Jang Group/Geo and a former envoy to the US and the UK.