Bharatiya Janata Party’s projection as the only bulwark against the belligerent neighbour Pakistan and its alleged allies within has paid rich political dividends to India’s ruling party, making any breakthrough in hostile ties between the two countries increasingly difficult
In December 2021, Pakistan’s first-ever National Security Policy (NSP) understandably hit the headlines in India, which was mentioned more than any other nation in it—at least 16 times.
The 62-page document prepared after what was described as a seven-year ‘strategic thought’ referred to a policy of peace at home and abroad. It said Islamabad wishes to improve its relationship with New Delhi while observing the rise of Hindutva-driven politics in India impacts Pakistan’s immediate security.
NSP cautioned against Indian leadership’s political exploitation of a policy of belligerence towards Pakistan and added it threatens military adventurism and non-contact warfare.
The reactions to NSP in India ranged from usual contempt to surprise over the peace overtures. They also highlighted the skewed coverage of Pakistan in the Indian media including in the increasingly shrinking liberal press.
Peace with India has been on the agenda of most political parties in Pakistan for years. But this has gone virtually unreported in India.
Pakistan has largely been covered in the Indian media to reinforce its negative image and now mostly to benefit the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The media projects the BJP as the only bulwark against the belligerent neighbour and its alleged allies within, making any breakthrough in hostile India-Pakistan ties between the two countries increasingly difficult.
The idea of improving India-Pakistan ties with New Delhi emphasized in NSP was unlikely to yield much particularly against the backdrop of the February 2019 attack on an Indian paramilitary convoy in Kashmir blamed on Pakistan.
The attack prompted India to carry out an airstrike in Pakistan’s Balakot, which triggered a retaliation and capture of an Indian pilot and brought the two countries to the verge of another war.
The tensions set the tone for the 2019 national polls in India and helped the BJP to return to power with a full majority for the second time. The India-Pakistan ties nosedived further when India ended Kashmir’s special status in the summer of 2019.
The growing political and economic instability in Pakistan has not helped matters either. Less than a year after NSP was launched, Prime Minister Imran Khan lost power.
Khan’s removal escalated political instability. He has since been on the warpath and blamed Pakistan’s military establishment for bringing down his government and installing his opponents in power.
Pakistan’s political parties have been unable to put their house in order for NSP to be taken seriously even as the return of three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s party to power was expected to improve India-Pakistan ties.
Sharif has articulated the idea of peace with India perhaps most vigorously over the last three decades. This has been among the reasons for his confrontation with the military establishment that cut short his stint in power thrice
All major parties including Sharif’s Muslim League (Nawaz) or PML (N), which returned to power as the head of a coalition government in April 2022, have since at least 2008 underlined their commitment to peace with India in their poll manifestos.
Before it returned to power in 2008, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) which is part of the current coalition government, in its manifesto, endorsed India’s stand on reducing tensions between the two countries on the basis of the Simla Agreement.
The PPP called for negotiations to resolve outstanding disputes and underlined that maintaining peaceful India-Pakistan ties was imperative for achieving the goal of a prosperous Pakistan.
It promised the PPP would not allow Pakistan’s territory to be used for cross-border terrorism against its neighbours. The party pledged to dismantle militant groups seeking to take hostage Pakistan’s foreign policy and impose their writ through force in the country and elsewhere.
The PPP, whose leader Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in a terror attack in the run-up to the 2008 polls, said distinctions between, and amongst terrorist groups would not be maintained.
The PPP’s 2008 manifesto also pledged to pursue a composite dialogue with India for the resolution of bilateral issues including Kashmir:
PPP wouldn’t allow lack of progress on one agenda [Kashmir] to impede progress on the other. The PPP supports open LoC [Line of Control or the de facto border between the two countries in the region] to unite the Kashmiris.
In its 2008 manifesto, PML (N) denounced extremism and its manifestation in the form of terrorism and suicide bombing. It admitted to the presence of extremists in Pakistan.
PML (N) said the use of force is and will remain necessary against foreign and local terrorists, who take innocent lives and also to prevent infiltration across the Pakistan border.
It underlined its commitment to resolute ‘steps to eradicate the menace of extremism and terrorism.’ ‘The party would accord special priority to a peaceful settlement of all outstanding issues with India.’
Even the then-military ruler Parvez Musharraf-backed Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid) or PML (Q)’s manifesto pledged to disallow the use of Pakistan’s territory against neighbouring countries.
It said Pakistan’s first priority should be to bring peace to South Asia while underlining it was against terrorism, extremism, and violence in all its forms and manifestations.
The party promised to pursue the peace process with India with vigour, break the deadlock on Kashmir, and support all initiatives for its peaceful resolution.
Pakistan’s third-largest party, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), in its manifesto, underlines its opposition to all types of terrorism and promised to launch a rigorous campaign and public awareness to exterminate it.
‘MQM encourages confidence-building measures and dialogue process with India and wants to solve the Kashmir issue through dialogue,’ it said.
Leading Pakistani political parties again pledged to promote peace with New Delhi in their manifestos ahead of the 2013 elections.
PML (N), which returned to power that year for the third time with Nawaz Sharif as the Prime Minister, even proposed to link India with Afghanistan besides energy-rich Iran and Central Asian Republics (CAR) via Pakistan’s territory.
The proposal was significant as Pakistan has long refused to allow transit trade between India and Afghanistan blaming India for using Kabul to encircle it strategically.
PML (N) argued Pakistan can also develop a flourishing transit economy by linking India with Afghanistan and CAR and providing a land route from Iran to India and access to CAR to the Arabian sea and India for oil/gas pipelines.
The manifesto of Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which emerged as a major force in the 2013 polls before coming to power five years later, echoed the PML (N) in part.
‘Progressive détente with India will benefit both countries if centered on conflict resolution and cooperation, especially in the field of energy,’ the PTI said in its 2013 election manifesto. It listed the resolution of the Kashmir dispute as part of Pakistan’s core national interest.
The Imran Khan-led party pledged against allowing the country’s territory or people, including its armed forces, to be used by any nation for the promotion of its political ideology or hegemony or promoting terrorism and destabilising any state.
PTI recognised terrorism as a growing internal problem and promised to move substantively on the bilateral strategic dialogue with India besides rationalising the defense spending.
The PML (Q), which ruled Pakistan between 2002 and 2007, cited the threat to national security ‘from unconventional sources’ and said it is no longer ‘an issue of defending the country against foreign military aggression from across the border (India).’
Against the backdrop of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which derailed the India-Pakistan peace process, the PML (Q) called for a zero-tolerance policy against any non-state actors planning, organising, training, or launching military attacks against any of Pakistan’s neighbours.
It underlined Pakistan can no longer use the argument of ‘absence of the writ of the state in ungoverned spaced parts of Pakistan’ as an excuse as this means ‘abdication of a fundamental responsibility for happenings within our territorial jurisdiction.’
In its 2013 manifesto, PPP took credit for initiating a policy of sustained dialogue with neighbours including India. It pledged to pursue stability and peace-building in the region as a policy priority.
PPP counted normalisation of trade with India, which Islamabad resisted for years because of its Kashmir-first policy, among the important achievements of its government replacing old templates that ‘hinged strategic ties on narrow definitions of national security.’
When Musharraf championed good India-Pakistan ties before the restoration of democracy in 2008, he even dropped the traditional insistence on the implementation of the UN resolutions on a referendum in Kashmir to decide the region’s political future.
He instead proposed a four-point formula to resolve the dispute in a reversal of Pakistan’s policy on it for five decades. Musharraf’s handpicked successor, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, called the Taliban insurgency before it was crushed the biggest threat to Pakistan’s national security and not India.
Sharif has consistently since the 1990s maintained a conciliatory approach towards India, which led to the Lahore Declaration for a peaceful co-existence he signed when Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee travelled to Pakistan in 1999.
Ahead of the 2013 polls, he called for unilateral visa-free travel for Indians and demilitarization of the strategic Siachen Glacier, the world’s highest battlefield. He promised peace with India and linked it with Pakistan’s prosperity.
Sharif called his victory in the 2013 polls an endorsement of his bridge-building promises with India and insisted he will even visit Delhi uninvited.
In his 2014 Independence Day speech, Sharif described the promotion of peaceful relations with India as the cardinal principle of his foreign policy.
Sharif earlier that year visited India to attend Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s inauguration. Unlike most visiting Pakistani leaders, he avoided meeting Kashmiri separatists.
The gesture was not lost on his hosts, who have routinely linked their political opponents to Pakistan to undermine them when they have not anything remotely to do with the country.
Sharif even developed a good rapport with Modi, who made an unannounced stopover to meet him in Lahore in 2015. The two walked hand in hand after embracing each other as Modi touched down in Lahore.
The warmth in their body language was extraordinary given how Modi even used anti-Pakistan rhetoric to win provincial elections in Gujarat, which he helmed for over a decade before becoming the Prime Minister in 2014.
It was a stunning turnaround in the India-Pakistan ties. Modi, who has stigmatized his political opponents over imaginary association with Pakistan, was until two years earlier banned from entering the US on religious-freedom grounds based on the allegations of his complicity in the violence against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002.
Despite the baggage, the two risked meeting each other. Sharif took a greater risk of hosting Modi without the presence of his national security advisor and foreign office officials.
The bonhomie, however, did not develop into something more substantive for a better future for 24.89 percent of the world’s population that lives in South Asia.
That there is no consensus on who will run Pakistan and chronic political bickering has also meant no well-meaning intentions have fructified.
As Pakistani author and journalist Raza Rumi noted in the Friday Times on February 13, 2023, the military ‘was once the all-powerful arbiter with a veto “stick” that could end a particular crisis, or show the way forward.’
Rumi added the ‘military, with all its traditional power and influence, is under intense attack and scrutiny‘ over its political meddling. He added ‘its overriding objective might be to resuscitate its image’, making it increasingly unlikely for the military to make good on overtures of peace in NSP to improve India-Pakistan ties.
Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide