Tuesday, December 6, 2022
HomeOpinionGlobal PrintModi’s flood tweet, Jaishankar’s statement show something has thawed in India-Pakistan ties

Modi’s flood tweet, Jaishankar’s statement show something has thawed in India-Pakistan ties

It seems that the back-channel continues to work – no self-respecting nuclear powers, especially neighbours, would refuse to talk even if they publicly deny it.

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Pakistan’s worst floods in several years may become the thin end of the wedge to crack open the frozen relationship with India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted his sympathies for the humanitarian disaster, and external affairs minister S. Jaishankar said India should be “more generous and more non-reciprocal” in taking forward the idea of regionalism.

“Saddened to see the devastation caused by the floods in Pakistan. We extend our heartfelt condolences to the families of the victims, the injured and all those affected by this natural calamity and hope for an early restoration of normalcy,” Modi tweeted Monday evening. The tweet received more than 1 lakh “likes” and more than 11,000 retweets, indicating that the constituency for ‘normalcy’ is a real one.

Separately, at an Asia Society think-tank event, Jaishankar put forward his thoughts on regionalism.

“I would be a very strong votary of more regionalism, of India actually being more generous and more non-reciprocal and more effective in what is building,” Jaishankar said. He was answering a question by Sri Lanka’s high commissioner to India Milinda Moragoda.

Of course, these words have been spoken before – as long back as 1997, when then-PM IK Gujral’s non-reciprocal foreign policy for South Asia was based on the premise that India’s much larger size, population and GDP could afford it to be far more generous to its neighbours. It was famously called the “Gujral Doctrine”.

So, what Jaishankar is saying today is not new, which means that several questions arise. First, why is the minister taking a softer line today on Pakistan, when the BJP government has said, time and again, that it will not have any dialogue with it until cross-border terrorism has come to an end? What has changed?

Second, did New Delhi need a humanitarian disaster to extend help to Pakistanis? And third, is there a back-channel that continues to work between the two publicly estranged countries – which resulted in an agreement of peace and tranquillity on the Line of Control in February 2021 – and that both sides are waiting for the opportune moment to restart the fire?

Also read: Pakistani celebs flood social media with relief calls. Citizens say ‘you contribute first’

Back-channel continues to work

Cynics would say that all of the above are true. More than a thousand people have died in the flash floods in Pakistan and the country has put out an appeal to the international community. Planning minister Ahsan Iqbal says at least $10 billion is needed to repair and rebuild.

Pakistan’s commerce minister Miftah Ismail has also said that the country could partially overturn the ban on trading with India and open Wagah border for limited trade in vegetables to help people deal with the floods. The trade ban was imposed in the wake of the Modi government’s decision to revoke Article 370, which gave special status to Jammu and Kashmir.

Certainly, it seems that a back-channel continues to work – in any case, no self-respecting nuclear powers, especially neighbours, would refuse to talk to each other, even if they publicly deny any contact. When some Indian Air Force officers accidentally fired a missile into Pakistan in March – they were recently sacked for this misdemeanour – Pakistan hardly made a hue and cry, leading analysts to believe that contacts were continuing to take place.

Moreover, India’s interest in bringing about a LoC ceasefire was stirred by concern that with Chinese troops on the LAC since 2020, Pakistani troops on the western border should not pave the way for a two-front escalation of tension.

The LoC ceasefire in Kashmir in February 2021 could not have taken place without back-channel efforts. The joint statement noted that the two Directors-General of Military Operations (DGMO) “agreed to address each other’s core issues and concerns which have a propensity to disturb peace and lead to violence” so as to achieve “mutually beneficial and sustainable peace along the borders.”

While India hoped that the LoC ceasefire would be a new beginning of things to come – that then PM Imran Khan’s anger over the revocation of Article 370 had subsided – those hopes were pretty much belied when Khan over-ruled his own commerce ministry’s proposal to reopen trade in cotton and sugar, saying that India should first do something about Kashmir’s special status.

According to Indian officials, Article 370 revocation is a done deal; it cannot be reversed. Some movement has been made on electoral rolls for J&K elections, but the question of statehood has gotten bogged down with concerns about the fairness of the electoral rolls.

Moreover, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, whose criticism of Imran Khan attempting to open trade with India without New Delhi making some movement on Kashmir, will be hurt badly if he is seen to be making any political concessions on Kashmir. Sharif is keenly aware that if elections are held in Pakistan today, Imran Khan stands a fair chance of coming back.

Also read: Shehbaz Sharif just realised there’s a bigger problem than Imran Khan—Pakistan’s epic floods

What does Bajwa want?

That leaves the most important card in the pack – what Pakistan Army chief Gen. Qamar Bajwa is thinking. Is he just going to retire and go off into the sunset after a couple of months? Or is he going to broker a deal between India and Pakistan?

Bajwa has certainly been busy. Weeks before the India-Pakistan LoC ceasefire, he talked about “mutual respect and peaceful coexistence”, his first comments since the 2019 Balakot strikes. In July, a month before al-Qaeda leader al-Zawahiri was killed in Kabul, Bajwa called US senior officials requesting them to expedite International Monetary Fund (IMF) aid to shore up Pakistan’s economy.

With two months left to go for his retirement, is Bajwa interested in peace breaking out between India and Pakistan?

As for Modi, he would certainly like there to be a modicum of normality with Pakistan. It has been six years since talks went into deep freeze after the Pathankot strike, reaffirmed by the revocation of Article 370 and the Balakot strike. How much longer can India remain in this tense state with Pakistan next door?

That’s why Modi’s humanitarian tweet and Jaishankar’s comments on regionalism are so interesting. On the one hand, they may die a desultory death. On the other, they are pregnant with the possibility of normalising a relationship with a difficult neighbour.

Several previous Indian prime ministers have been in this space before – most notably, Atal Behari Vajpayee. Does Narendra Modi have the charm and vision to separate the thorns from the roses and find the light at the end of a long tunnel?

The author is a consulting editor. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.

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