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Why PM Modi and Gen Bajwa mean business with India-Pakistan peace talks. Nothing else matters

What can India and Pakistan give each other to save face? This jockeying for a framework of give-and-take is likely what’s going on today.

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It’s been a week since Pakistan went back on its decision to open up trade with India, stalling a move to normalise ties spearheaded by none other than the powerful army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and Prime Minister Imran Khan. Four ministers, each of them a creature of the military establishment, stood up to their Prime Minister and the man representing the Pakistan Army, to whom they owe their lives in politics.

Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Minister for Human Rights Shireen Mazari, Minister for Railways Sheikh Rashid, and Minister for Planning Asad Umar – none of them would be in power for even a day if the benevolent hand of the military establishment was not on their head.

So, how did these four ministers dare to do this?

Therein hangs a long tale coloured with several smokescreens, feints, double-crosses, as well as the ability to play both sides — shorthand for the fog of war. And then there is the possibility that the military establishment is divided between Gen Bajwa and his ISI chief, Gen Faiz Hameed – which means that one part of Imran Khan’s government is paying its dues to the past and the other to the future.

Also read: Imran Khan’s U-turn on trade with India puts Delhi in a spot — who to talk to in Pakistan

Changes in the diplomatic landscape

A certain feverish pace has infiltrated both India and Pakistan since Bajwa called upon them to “bury the past and move forward” in a speech on 18 March. Prime Minister Narendra Modi rapidly followed that up with a letter to Imran Khan, wishing Pakistan best wishes on its national day on 23 March.

Now, it is rumoured that the two high commissioners to Delhi and Islamabad could be exchanged sooner than later, and both high commissions restored to full strength — right now they are working at half their capacity.

Ajay Bisaria, who was expelled from Pakistan after 5 August 2019 — when the Modi government changed the status of Jammu & Kashmir and integrated it with the Union — and is now India’s high commissioner to Canada, may return to Pakistan. The other name on the cards is India’s ambassador to China, Vikram Misri, who has formerly served in Islamabad as a political counsellor.

On Pakistan’s side, the two names in circulation are Pakistan’s ambassador to India Moin ul Haque, who had been seconded to go to India but was diverted to Beijing after 5 August 2019, as well as Pakistan’s high commissioner to Canada Raza Bashir Tarar. He is the brother of the well-known Pakistani journalist Mehr Tarar.

Political observers in both India and Pakistan say the “storm in the tea-cup” associated with Pakistan’s reversal of its own Cabinet’s decision last week on importing sugar and yarn and cotton from India must be treated as exactly that.

These sources said that Gen Bajwa’s call to improve ties was based on the clear-headed realisation that neither Pakistan nor India could afford to remain in a state of hostility for much longer. And while he was certainly not getting involved in export-import of goods from India, whether of sugar or cotton, he had clearly argued that “the Kashmir issue is obviously at the heart of this” improved relationship.

Certainly, the Pakistani Cabinet’s statement that conditions any future improvement in the relationship with India going back to the pre-5 August 2019 position complicates matters. But PM Modi’s message of goodwill to Imran Khan, as well as get-well-soon wishes to Kashmiri leader Farooq Abdullah — remember that he had gone to meet the PM to ask about rumours that Article 370 was going to be revoked just before troops moved into the valley, and the PM had demurred — are already being seen as a precursor to steps that India will be taking in Kashmir.

Along with the restoration of 4G internet connectivity in J&K and the release of political prisoners, Delhi is said to be contemplating a series of steps in the Valley that could make it easier for Pakistan to climb down and seize the moment.

Also read: Pakistan’s peace offer came with fine print. Optimistic Indians failed to read it

Pakistan’s internal warfare

So why did the four Pakistani Cabinet ministers undermine their own PM and army chief by voting against the resumption of trade?

First of all, it is being speculated that the military establishment isn’t the uniform group it is made out to be; that Bajwa supports PM Imran Khan, but that his colleagues, including ISI chief Faiz Hameed, may support other people in Imran’s Cabinet like Shah Mehmood Qureshi. If this is true, then the internecine warfare in Pakistan’s Cabinet meeting last week is perfectly understandable.

Second, the reversal makes it seem as if civilians, not the military, are really in charge in Pakistan — a smokescreen the establishment in Rawalpindi wants the rest of the world to see.

Third, since the Army is really in charge of the India policy in Pakistan, it may have wanted to see how the Nawaz Sharif and the Zardari-Bhutto opposition, who have spent long years trying to make peace with India, was going to react. In fact, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, a former PM and member of the Nawaz Sharif Muslim League, has said that the nation “won’t accept any bargain on Kashmir.”

Fourth, Gen Bajwa could be testing the waters to see how far the Indian side is willing to go to sustain peace — is India, for example, willing to stand the heat of an American withdrawal from Afghanistan and the consequent vacuum being filled by Pakistan?

And fifth, what can India do to sweeten the Kashmir pill for Pakistan? Fact is, Bajwa & Co understand that the Modi government is not returning to the pre-5 August 2019 position in Kashmir, but have still engaged in talks with Delhi. And now that the talks are stalled over the import of sugar and cotton, what can Delhi do to change Rawalpindi’s mind?

Also read: Gen Bajwa wanted a ‘paradigm shift’ with India, but Pakistan military isn’t ready

A fraught history

The thing about the India-Pakistan story is that history presents itself not just as tragedy and farce, but also as a series of missed opportunities. Only 20 years ago, in July 2001, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had invited former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf to Agra to make peace – Vajpayee has since passed away and Musharraf lives in exile in Dubai. Only two generations of Indians and Pakistanis have in the interim reached adulthood. The anniversary of that event will soon be upon us.

Three years later, in January 2004, Vajpayee was travelling to Islamabad to shake hands with the man he had spurned in Agra – soon, the Indian cricket team was playing in Pakistan and Pakistanis were opening their homes to unknown visitors from across the border and shopkeepers were refusing to take money for wares these visitors had bought. There was high hope in the air, an excitement that the borders would soon become transparent.

By 2007, Musharraf and Manmohan Singh were ready to make peace with a 4-point plan for Kashmir – but the lawyers’ movement in Pakistan came in the way, Musharraf was soon toppled, and two years later Benazir Bhutto was assassinated.

The start-stop-start during the Modi years is far too well-known to be recounted, but the moral of the story is that if India believes it is South Asia’s biggest power, then it must take responsibility for peace in South Asia. Far too many years have been lost in trying to punish a recalcitrant neighbour. Meanwhile, China has moved in.

It’s still unclear what exactly has paved the way for this most recent bout of back-channel talks – but because it’s so welcome, no one’s really asking. Ordinary people on both sides of the border, who have little to do with the high-jinks of politics, wonder why we just can’t have normal relations and do normal things like travel, make friends, and discover new things.

For those getting older, the sense that both countries are running out of time is getting stronger. Next year, when India celebrates 75 years of its Independence with PM Modi at the helm, there will be no escaping the thought that the vivisection of ‘Akhand Bharat,’ as the RSS describes the pre-1947 nation, was accompanied by the forced migration of about 17 million people on both sides and the killings of about one million.

A carnage like that is even rarer than a pandemic. And yet, Indians — Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs — thought nothing of killing, raping, and destroying relationships built over centuries. Can both nations, in 2022, finally move on from the holocaust of 1947?

Is that what Ajit Doval and Gen Bajwa, widely believed to be the interlocutors of the India-Pakistan back-channel, are doing?

Some say Pakistan is looking for a face-saver in Kashmir – say, a return to statehood, which would mean that an elected government comes to power. While Delhi has no aversion to this roadmap, it is more than likely that statehood in Kashmir is a culmination, rather than the beginning, of peace negotiations between India and Pakistan.

So what could India and Pakistan give each other today, which would help both sides save face and declare victory? This jockeying for a framework of give-and-take, of mapping the contours of a deal – that’s what is likely going on today.

One thing is clear. Both PM Modi and Gen Bajwa mean business. Nothing – and no one else — matters.

Views are personal. You can follow her on Twitter @jomalhotra.

Edited by Fiza Ranalvi Jha.

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  1. India and Pakistan can never be friends as nations for various reasons and there is no need to analyze or change it. Some Indians and Pakistanis can be friends that needs to be improved. Both nations should aspire to respect each other and coexist. As a result of US China negotiations, there is pressure on both India and Pakistan to attempt a thaw. Of course Kashmir must be resolved. India perceived as more powerful than Pakistan (whatever that means) will only concede to it’s weakness if it recedes from its position on Kashmir. Lets see how successful Biden admin will be in it’s tenure to contain China and manage India. As for war with Pakistan, skirmishes yes, but India doesn’t have the appetite to wage a full on war with Pakistan. So lets talk sense without promoting hatred. Indian media needs to improve it’s quality and depict the true character of larger India which is gentle sane and educated.

  2. The article is typical of the hollow that Jyoti is famous for. Pakistan was created by the British as a nation opposed to India. Britain, US and China have all used Pakistan for its virulent opposition to India.
    Bajwa is on his way out – he is already on extension. So let us be realistic about his ability to deliver even if he is sincere. Also, India cannot afford to think of letting Pakistan get even a face saver in Kashmir. The instrument of accession is same as that of hundreds of princely states. Pakistan can tomorrow rake up issues of other states – Hyderabad or Darbhanga or something else. So India would be better off ignoring Pakistan than engaging it on Kashmir or restricting the discussion to POK. Indian engagement with Pakistan merely reflects a refusal to accept reality

  3. Why should India have to save face when it is clear that Pakistan has the most to lose and the gap in national power between the 2 will continue to widen with every passing year in India’s favour?

  4. Only Jyoti can make sense of what she is writing and trying for us to make sense of it! If she is to be believed, India will do many things in J&K to make Pakistan happy so that Pak can talk to India and we will have peace!

    Modi and Doval know exactly what they are doing. They know it is a good idea to have ceasefire for a while at least next summer, to have some breather for our Army. They managed to have it as Bajwa too wanted it for his own reasons.

    Rest of Jyoti’s ideas are all speculation and her dreams. Period.

  5. Ever since guns stopped firing along the border, plebs on both sides of the border have been fed with speculative stories of whodunnit. And some fiction too.

    Let us look at the facts:

    Pak economy: IMF loans, Chinese loans, FATF, high inflation, debt servicing eating into budget, military hardware to catch up with India draining cash resources, and so on.

    Pak geo-politics: Snubbed by the Arab world, no more doughs from Uncle Sam, Turkey has its own problems, Afghan/Iran /Indian borders on the boil, future mortgaged to China and so on.

    Within the military – many generals’ careers have been ruined by the extension granted to the big Boot Bajwa. So, for the first time people are openly talking against the military now, with politicians grabbing the opportunity with both the hands. Not all are on the same page, and in fact there are many pages there now!

    Playboy khan is a growing liability for the military now, but they don’t have an alternative. It takes time to manufacture another political outfit which has some PR value.

    Long-term kutty situation with Pakistan does hurt India, but India can still manage matters. So, a change to the status quo does indeed suit Pakistan more than India. Hence Bajwa firing from all cylinders.

    How long this soap opera will this last? Well, it depends on the next general after Bajwa man has hung up his boots.

  6. Anyone who lives in the real world far away from propaganda of MOMBATI GANG will realise that peace with pakistan is not what 99.99999999 % pakistanis want.

    Pakistanis would rather die in poverty because this life is transient and whatever they do is because they are answerable in AFTERLIFE.

    India wants peace with pakistan.

    Pakistanis wants to fly their flag on RED FORT with all HINDUS duly converted.

    Please check out what pakistanis school books teach about HINDUS before promoting leftist fake narrative.

  7. You got the posts occupied by the ministers in Pakistani government wrong. Please research and write. Sheikh Rashid Is the internal minister of Pakistan!!

  8. The author is hallucinating if she believes that the Pakistan establishment is interested in peace. Until 1971 is revenged Pakistan will want no peace. The present status quo where neither country talks to each other and maintains a ceasefire at the border suits both countries best. Stay with this whilst making sure that Pakistani terrorists don’t skip in. Time to give up this obsession of making peace with Pakistan which is nothing more than an illusion.

  9. Jyoti Malhotra seems to be an “aman ki asha” wet dreamer like the rest of her Marxist bedfellows.

  10. Serious question : How has the decision of 5th August 2019 solved either the external or the internal dimensions of the Kashmir problem.

  11. Unless Pakistan or India fight a war in which one wins and can force its demands on other Kashmir will not be resolved.So lets stop wasting our time and learn from history

  12. Yawning… Wishful thinking. These kind of articles will keep coming out until next Pulwama or Mumbai 26/11.

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