On 1 April, a friend frantically called from Delhi asking me to confirm if the rumour about Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan suffering a heart attack was true, or just an April Fool’s prank. I replied saying that not only was the cricketer-turned-politician doing well but that he seems to have pulled an April Fool’s prank of his own. Imran Khan rejected a proposal made by his cabinet’s Economic Coordination Committee to import cotton and sugar from India, which the PM had himself signed as minister-in-charge of commerce and textile. This was followed by Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi insisting that dialogue with India cannot be revived until India withdraws its decision to abrogate Article 370 that granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir.
This looks like the first roadblock in the path of Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s ambition to bring about a ‘paradigm shift’, a desire he expressed during his speech at the Islamabad Security Dialogue on 18 March. It also appears to be a case of the army chief opening his mouth before engaging the traditional proponents of the security establishment. I was also reminded of a conversation I had with my good friend and journalist Nirupama Subramaniam in 2007, who was in Islamabad then as a correspondent for The Hindu, that peace was not a foregone conclusion because it did not have a strong constituency within the national security establishment. It didn’t take long for the departure of both Pervez Musharraf and the peace initiative.
Why trade is not so easy
A paradigm shift is strategically and tactically difficult. The biggest problem for any army commander is structural. Not allowing a political leadership to conceive of and implement a peace initiative points to the absence of a protective cushion. A general taking on the responsibility of bringing peace removes his flexibility vis-à-vis his own men. Musharraf didn’t understand this nor does Bajwa. At a tactical level, an about-turn becomes imperative. The social media-conscious security establishment in Pakistan soon realised that moving too fast would look like surrender, a term that brings back memory of 1971.
Social media is abuzz with reminders to Bajwa that his peace talk is similar to what he and his men stopped former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from achieving: use of non-status quo and non-traditional means to bring cooperative peace and stability in the region. So, was the army chief talking peace because Pakistan had no option but to talk to India? General Bajwa may have read out a speech written by de-facto National Security Adviser Moeed Yusuf that talked about paradigm shift and geo-economics, but he cannot afford to become more questionable than he already is in front of his generals. It is easy to talk about a shift from geo-strategy to geo-economics, but it’s much harder to manage that shift. In any case, an army chief on extension is like a vehicle on borrowed gas.
The status-quo forces appear visibly unhappy with the domestic implications. They balked, thus forcing Khan to jettison the first step towards a trade initiative that has been in abeyance for two years, and blame the reversal on New Delhi. Senator and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) leader Sherry Rehman accused ‘hawks in India’ for viewing the offer of paradigm shift as India’s victory or driven by Pakistan’s economic compulsions. The argument among the status quoists in the establishment is that India needs peace with Pakistan more than Pakistan does. From building its economy to bringing peace at the Line of Control (LoC), New Delhi has much to gain but must not underestimate the significance of reciprocating on issue central to Pakistan – Kashmir.
People close to the establishment explained to me that the absence of any mention of Article 370 or the UN resolutions from General Bajwa’s 18 March speech indicated that the Pakistan military was perhaps changing as an institution and now wanted territorial status quo. However, the establishment soon realised the high cost of reversing the status quo for its institutional legitimacy. Domestically, appearing as wanting peace more than India would bring into question the reason behind installing a political government that has achieved little, and de-stabilising the democratic process. Geo-politically, the military would contest the impression that India is a bigger beneficiary of peace.
New spin doctors
Hardly surprising, then, that by the evening of Imran Khan’s reversal of the trade decision, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) social media activists were trying to justify it as Khan’s foresight and ability to inflict pain on Narendra Modi: India needs to export to Pakistan more than Pakistan needs to buy from India. Pakistan’s parallel universe reminds one of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Not too long ago, Moeed Yusuf, the Prime Minister’s Special Assistant on National Security who imagines himself to be the NSA, spoke about India’s negative growth and Pakistan being on the path of economic transformation of the kind that would soon make ‘immigration officials in other countries salute [Pakistan’s] green passport’. He is the newfound spin-doctor of Pakistan’s deep state.
Business journalist and Dawn columnist Khurram Hussain seems to suggest that the reversal of decision to import may have been an unintended consequence of Pakistan’s business and industrial lobby reading too much into General Bajwa’s speech, and thus lobbying for permission to procure from India. Hussain argues that the Pakistani military may be behind the reversal rather than PM Khan going on his own.
Pakistan’s struggle with self-image
The fundamental lesson for India here is the same as before — economic imperative alone will not convince Pakistan to change course. The financial burden, combined with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF)-driven sanctions, have made the economy suffer. But the military is still not convinced that wanting people to not ‘eat grass’ for the sake of military security or letting its national security guard down is also an option.
The national security establishment looks confident of its recent tactical gains in Afghanistan — the long-term threat from having Taliban in power is ignored — and is busy building its options in Central Asia to claim its share of power and role in West Asia. One of the themes that came up during the Islamabad Security Dialogue was about treating South Asia as two: India and the rest of the region versus Pakistan, and Afghanistan opening up to Central Asia, Russia and China. Islamabad would now want New Delhi to remember that while Bajwa spoke about transformation, he also insisted upon India offering something to Pakistan that would feel like gain. Opening trade alone doesn’t wash. Some change in the new legal-constitutional framework in Kashmir is being asked for. From the looks of it, Pakistan’s national security community still believes that reversing Article 370 decision is doable for the Modi government. This goes hand-in-hand with its limitation of not being able to pull out jihadis from its hat in the foreseeable future. It’s not just the fear of economic sanctions but the need to build a positive narrative about Pakistan that seems to be the driving factor.
Although the backchannel dialogue seems to have eased some tension, there remains a large gap between expectations of policymakers and the hard reality of policymaking. One option is for new initiatives like cross-border trade in Kashmir. There is also the fact that beyond a point, the political cost for Narendra Modi may increase if not become entirely unaffordable. Perhaps, it will help to engage in some more backchannel deliberations to further understand the exact markers regarding expectations and possibilities. India and Pakistan have begun to talk but they have not arrived at the moment when it becomes possible to imagine anchoring peace.
The author is a research associate at SOAS, London and author of Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy. She tweets @iamthedrifter. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)