Go on, Break the Cycle

The cancellation of scheduled talks between the national security advisors (NSAs) of India and Pakistan reflects the weak fundamentals of the relationship between the two countries. The talks had been scheduled because both wanted to show the rest of the world that they are willing to talk. But neither government had anything substantive to offer the other, beyond well-worn platitudes.

Although Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistan counterpart Nawaz Sharif had agreed to talks focused on terrorism, Nawaz could not afford to be willing completely to ignore Kashmir. The written statement issued after the meeting on the sidelines of an international summit in Ufa, Russia was not enough to overcome the dictates of domestic politics in either country.

Pakistan’s decision to announce NSA Sartaj Aziz’s plans to meet leaders of the Hurriyat Conference was likely predicated on the knowledge that India would react adversely to that move. The Indians reacted, as expected, prompting Pakistan to call off the talks on grounds of India’s “preconditions”. The talks’ cancellation saved Pakistan from a public discussion of its support for terrorism and gave Islamabad a face-saver. But even if the talks had gone ahead, Aziz would have only returned home to declare that he responded to India’s dossier on terrorism with one of his own about India’s alleged role in ethnic insurgencies in Balochistan and Karachi.

From India’s perspective, the main issue hindering bilateral relations between the two nuclear-armed neighbours is Pakistan’s support for terrorism. Pakistan blandly denies sponsoring Islamist terrorists, though the denial is hardly taken seriously by the international community. As if to create equivalence, Pakistan also blames India for fomenting trouble across their shared border.

The terrorism issue is now almost three decades old and Indians might be justified if they finally conclude that talks might not be the way to bring it to an end. Given that war is not an option, New Delhi may have to think of creative ways to coerce Islamabad, possibly with international reprimand. But Indian efforts to secure condemnation of Pakistan’s support for jihadis at the UN are likely to be blocked by China, which has a veto at the UN Security Council that India does not.

Pakistan continues to insist on the primacy of the Kashmir dispute — the “core issue” — in its ties with India. For the country’s all-powerful military and its religious conservative elements, this is an ideological question, a crucial part of nation-building and the consolidation of a Pakistani identity. But even the most ardent Pakistani hyper-nationalists know that they failed to wrest Kashmir from India in four wars and through the jihadi insurgency that has been waged from Pakistan since 1989.

Thus, India and Pakistan go through the motion of talks periodically, knowing they will get nowhere until the other budges from its position. For years, Pakistan has sought to internationalise the Kashmir dispute, which India does not see any reason to even discuss. Kashmir is an emotive issue in Pakistan because of the failure of its leaders to inform their people that Pakistan no longer enjoys international support on the matter. The average Pakistani is only told that Kashmir should have been part of Pakistan because of its Muslim majority and that India has reneged on its commitment to resolve the dispute through a plebiscite in the disputed territory.

What most Pakistanis do not know is that the last UN resolution on Kashmir was passed in 1957 and Pakistan could not win support for a plebiscite in Kashmir today if it asked for a new vote at the UN. Instead of accepting that it might be better for India and Pakistan to normalise relations by expanding trade and cross-border travel, Pakistani hardliners have stuck to a “Kashmir first” mantra, which they know is unrealistic.

On the other side, hardliners in an increasingly self-confident India play on Indians’ frustration with Pakistani support for jihadis, such as those responsible for the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in November 2008. There is empty talk of “teaching Pakistan a lesson”, without acknowledging that teaching military lessons to nations armed with nuclear weapons is never easy. Indians could learn something from the US’s frustrations with North Korea.

Posturing on Kashmir gets Pakistan nowhere, but its leaders pursue it to maintain support at home. Pakistan has serious internal issues. It is the sixth-largest country in the world by population, but only 26th by GDP on purchasing power parity and 42nd in nominal terms. Forty-two per cent of its schoolgoing-age children are out of school.

Pakistani leaders could open trade, education exchanges and travel with India, which is set to emerge as the third-largest economy in the world within 15 years, instead of insisting on the resolution of a dispute that hasn’t yet been resolved and can wait a bit longer.

India, on the other hand, could choose to engage (or even just disengage) with Pakistan without appearing to be petty and bent on rubbing its neighbour’s nose in the ground. Instead, India should wait patiently for public opinion in Pakistan to realise Pakistan’s increasing internal weakness. At the moment, weak civilian governments seeking to engage with India are not in a position to confront the hyper-nationalist sentiment that totally ignores harsh realities about Pakistan being unable to indefinitely compete with India.

The two countries need to break a familiar cycle: Pakistan tries to seek international attention for Kashmir, sometimes with terrorist attacks in India; both sides fire on each other along the Line of Control in Kashmir; public recrimination and sabre-rattling follows; both sides mobilise troops; both sides stand down under international pressure or through multilateral diplomacy; talks are scheduled; talks result in nothing or are cancelled. The cycle repeats itself.

But things could change if either side simply refuses to play that game. If Pakistan won’t change, perhaps India can.