As Narendra Modi takes oath as the Indian Prime Minister for a second term, his biggest foreign policy challenge will be Pakistan, especially after mounting a high-decibel negative campaign against it.
But, Modi’s personalised approach to diplomacy, of hugs and handshakes, which has been a success with leaders like Japan’s Shinzo Abe and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, may not work with Pakistan PM Imran Khan.
Also, investing time and effort in building a relationship with Khan may simply not pay off as civilian Prime Ministers don’t hang around for long in Pakistan.
Pakistan wants talks with India
In Pakistan, there is a greater desire for talks with India now, primarily due to the country’s shaky economic position and the international pressure it is facing. Recent reports say that Pakistan will continue to be on the Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) grey list.
Pakistan is entering another IMF programme to stabilise its economy. Spending on development has dropped by 34 per cent in the current fiscal year even as defence expenditure has shot up by 24 per cent.
This diversion of scarce resources from development to defence is unsustainable and Pakistan’s elite is now slowly realising that Islamabad cannot afford the anti-India stance any longer.
Inflation is rising and unemployment is set to worsen under the IMF programme. What better way to draw attention away from this economic pain than engaging with India and capturing people’s attention?
General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the current chief of army staff in Pakistan, has also shown a willingness to resume dialogue with India. Bajwa is set to retire in November this year, which means that he is hard-pressed for time and would like to make progress before he passes the baton to his successor.
All eyes on SCO summit
The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit, which kicks off next month in Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, will give us an early indication of which way things are headed between the two nuclear-armed countries. Reports suggest that a Modi-Khan meeting on the sidelines of the summit could be on the cards.
Ironically, Khan and his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, had cynically targeted former PM Nawaz Sharif for engaging with Modi and had raised the slogan “jo Modi ka yaar hai, ghaddar hai (he who is Modi’s friend is a traitor)”.
But 2019 is different, and Imran Khan knows it is important to reach out to India and Narendra Modi. Differences aside, there a quite a few common threads tying the two – they both have a revulsion for dynastic politics and a strong urge to change the status quo.
A meeting between them can open a unique opportunity to bring a turnaround in the frosty India-Pakistan relations.
The resumption of back-channel talks – Pakistan may appoint a new national security adviser to restart the process – may also allow both sides to make progress on key issues away from the glare of the media. This can give India and Pakistan the much-needed space to put together the building blocks for a bilateral meeting in the coming months. We may even see both leaders going beyond just a handshake at the United Nations General Assembly session later this year in New York.
Give peace a chance
Most would argue, rightfully, that the chances of a real change in India-Pakistan relations is marginal at best. India has continued to argue that Pakistan must curb groups engaging in cross-border terrorism before talks begin. Pakistan, on the other hand, has continued to allege that India is supporting anti-Pakistan terror groups in Afghanistan and that its intelligence agencies are fomenting violence within the country.
Imran Khan, however, has said that if India takes one step forward, “we will take two”, and this view has the support of the military leadership for the time being. But Pakistan’s civilian and military elite will not unilaterally cede to the Indian demands without any reciprocal action. With Modi keen to give “primacy to peace and development in our region”, we can only hope that the two prime ministers are not held hostage by history.
The author is a Director with Albright Stonebridge Group’s south Asia practice. He holds a Master’s degree in Law and Diplomacy with concentration in Economic Policy and South Asia from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Views are personal.