Long-anticipated peace negotiations between India and Pakistan appear to have been delayed until after India’s May parliamentary elections, and the prospects for subsequent talks are not clear.
Victory for Narendra Modi’s nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, a resurgent Taliban in the wake of the United States’ impending troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and Pakistan’s continuing failure to negotiate with or suppress the Pakistani Taliban point to a period of intense uncertainty and potential conflict. But this is no reason to give up trying for peace.
True, Modi’s peacemaking credentials are already highly questionable, both at home and in Pakistan. He was Gujarat’s chief minister in 2002 when riots killed more than a thousand Muslims. Many fear that, as prime minister, he would polarize the entire country along communal lines. And, thus far, he has taken an uncompromising position on Pakistan and will probably continue to talk tough, at least for the time being.
But Modi is likely to take cues from his BJP predecessor, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who visited Lahore in 1999 to talk peace with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif (who returned to power in 2013). There are good reasons for Modi to do so. Peace with Pakistan would strengthen his personal standing nationally and internationally, thus constituting a step toward fulfilling the BJP’s great-power ambitions for India. It would also help revive India’s weakened economy by spurring foreign investment, the benefits of which Modi has already seen in Gujarat.
Sharif has offered India olive branches of his own, and with good reason: Rapprochement with India is essential to strengthening his position in Afghanistan and improving his capacity to suppress violence at home. Peace with India would also allow him to undercut the power of Pakistan’s military and its intelligence wing, the Inter-Services Intelligence. Although entering peace talks with a future Modi government would risk provoking a domestic backlash, Sharif might still be willing to break the ice if the main political parties support his moves.
Unfortunately, many in South Asia do not want peace. Numerous attempts by India’s current Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to restart talks with Pakistan have been thwarted by violations along Kashmir’s line of control or as a result of cross-border artillery fire – episodes that seem to occur at the slightest provocation.
For now, Indian policymakers regard Sharif’s overtures with suspicion. They are wary of what his negotiations with the Pakistani Taliban might bring, and they doubt that he retains control over Pakistan’s policies on Kashmir or Afghanistan.
Indeed, the biggest obstacle to India-Pakistan peace negotiations is their vulnerability to spoilers. As soon as the process begins, powerful vested interests are likely to disrupt it – violently – because a peace agreement would undermine their power base and the political support that they derive from continuing the conflict.
There are plenty of precedents for this. In 1999, Pakistan’s Gen. Pervez Musharraf destabilized the Lahore peace process by sending rangers to occupy the Kargil Heights on Kashmir’s Indian side. India’s military response effectively buried the talks. In December 2001, the attack by the Pakistan-based militant groups Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed on India’s parliament wrecked unofficial discussions between the BJP government and Musharraf’s military regime.
India also has its spoilers. The February 2007 bombing – apparently by Hindu fundamentalists – of the Samjhauta Express, a biweekly train service connecting New Delhi and Lahore, occurred just before a visit by Pakistan’s foreign minister, killing 68 people, both Pakistanis and Indians.
The fact that both countries have weak governments that lack popular support strengthens the spoilers’ position. India’s Congress Party-led coalition may view a tough stance toward Pakistan as the only way to ward off domestic criticism from the BJP and other opposition parties. And many Indians doubt the value of negotiating with a Sharif government that, given civil-military tensions, may not serve its full term. The appointment of the pliable Gen. Raheel Sharif as army chief in Pakistan has helped defuse the situation. But, with Pakistan and India backing opposing sides in Afghanistan, the military and the ISI could reassert themselves should tensions there rise.
Fortunately, violence inside Kashmir has decreased, though it could easily flare up again if the Taliban were to consolidate its power in Afghanistan, and the ISI were to ratchet up support for groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed.
Though current political volatility in both India and Pakistan rules out full peace talks for the time being, that should not prevent the two sides from initiating confidence-building measures by trying to resolve lower-level disagreements, including territorial disputes over Siachen, Sir Creek and the Wullar barrage-Tulbul navigation project. Differences over water rights and dam construction could be negotiated at diplomatic levels or through back channels.
The two countries could also develop economic and commercial cooperation, work together to combat terrorism and drug trafficking and promote friendly exchanges in various social and cultural fields. Increased trade relations might also create countervailing economic interests in favor of peace. Recent agreements to establish more border trading posts and bank branches are good starting points, and Pakistan has already made some moves to reciprocate India’s offer of most-favored-nation trading status under a different name.
This alone may not guarantee the success of negotiations, if and when they take place, but it could remove incentives to spoil them.
And if the two countries can find ways to prevent smaller disputes from escalating, it would generate a more conducive atmosphere in which to address Kashmir, the largest source of conflict of all.
T. V. Paul is a professor of international relations at McGill University and the author of “The Warrior State: Pakistan in the Contemporary World.” THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate © (www.project-syndicate.org).