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Friday, December 22, 2023

Pak Peace Offer: Theatre of the absurd

Pakistan has been meticulously and systematically regular at its dramatic peace overtures to India, more so since May 2014 when India saw a new and essentially nationalistic leadership in the centre.

Pakistan’s latest edition of peace rhetoric came from no less than its Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif who in an interview (during his recent visit to the UAE) to a local media outlet, not only underscored the significance of normalized relations between India and Pakistan but a bit shockingly, even cited the need for Pakistan to learn lessons from its past three wars with India. This peace overture which might have been an outcome of the UAE leadership’s pro-regional stability counsel (to Pakistan) anchored in geopolitical pragmatism, fell through in no time as was evident from soon-released ‘correction’ statement from Pakistan’s PMO, reiterating conditionalities for bilateral talks to resume, i.e, restoration of article 370 in J&K and cessation of alleged human rights violations in Kashmir.

This quick crumbling of the so-called peace gesture however lays bare following three elements for strategic analysts to examine:

First, the gesture was more of an on the spur of the moment idea than one rooted in deep consideration of the ground realities. Even Sharif’s alliance partner, the PPP, often credited for being a permanent player of the establishment, didn’t seem to be on the same page. Not long before the latest overture, had we heard Pakistan’s own Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto making uncivilised remarks against the Indian PM during his visit to the U.S. that New Delhi went on to describe as a “new low, even for Pakistan.”

Calling the Indian PM a butcher (in the context of 2002 Gujarat riots), Bilawal had defied all diplomatic finesse and granularities. And days after Shehbaz Sharif talking peace in the UAE,  Pak Deputy FM Hina Rabbani in Davos (Switzerland) displayed bluntness that’s kind of rare for a seasoned diplomat, she openly argued against peace talks with India, claiming she did not see a peace partner in Indian PM Narendra Modi. Now, how could Pakistan PM bat openly in favor of peace when his own allies in the government are not on board or when Pakistan’s own political environment is as volatile as it could get. Was Sharif not at his worst in terms of political maturity? Making his statement just another gimmick aimed at the international audience.

Secondly, the episode has made intent of the country’s powerful military establishment clear. Unlike his predecessor Qamar Bajwa, the current Pak Army Chief Asim Munir does not seem to be very enthusiastic about peace.  A hurriedly-issued statement from PMO correcting PM Shehbaz Sharif’s blooper, has an obvious stamp of the establishment which had been left embarrassed with Sharif acknowledging Pakistan’s multiple military defeats to India. There is no denying that Shehbaz Sharif’s urge to learn lessons from the past three wars with India has not gone down well with the deep state. Asim Munir, considered more radical than most of Pakistan’s recent army chiefs, was the one during whose tenure, a gruesome terror strike had taken place in Pulwama in early 2019. As DGMI, he had shown a more aggressive approach against India vis-a-vis Kashmir and his open threat to India during his recent visit to PoJK also says a lot about his approach. This stance of the establishment under Munir contrasts with that of  his predecessor Bajwa who had tactically taken a pro-peace stance from  2021 onwards.

Bajwa’s peace rhetoric at two editions of Islamabad Dialogue (March 2021 and April 2022) had struck a new note in the bilateral matrix. Ironically, Imran Khan-led regime had stopped in tracks due to a politically-constrained environment. Now, with a hardliner Asim Munir in the saddle, the path to peace is  not a purple patch anymore. Munir has additionally been burdened with re-establishing military’s predominance as the final arbiter of the country’s destiny, by reuniting an army which now has pro- and anti-Imran factions, pro- Taliban and anti-Taliban groups and is also said to be divided on Pakistan’s India policy, keeping him too busy in domestic turmoil too.

Thirdly, we need to understand how peace overtures from Pakistan are always timed.

One, they usually come when Pakistan is in a tight spot. Currently, Pakistan needs strategic breathing space. Terror attacks from home-grown terror outfits are on the rise alarmingly and the interplay with the Afghan Taliban hasn’t gone down the anticipated way. Issues with Iran are also on the boil.

Two, as for Pak’s economic imbroglio, there is no respite around the corner. CPEC is another fiasco that has led to enormous debt for a forex-starved country.  Bailouts from global donors are attached with stringent conditionalities. Inflation numbers are at an all time high. Amidst all of this, Pakistan can ill afford to stoke conflict with India. And this is understandably why the ceasefire is more or less holding out from early 2021.

Three, more and more countries are now realising the importance of maintaining a good relationship with India both in economic and strategic terms. Middle Eastern countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia are looking to diversify their economies and rightly want to tap Indian potential for the same. Kashmir or for that matter, Islamic ideals, take a back seat when realistic considerations acquire preeminence. Hence, we have seen the role of the UAE in the recent past behind pushing back-channel talks between India and Pakistan. Even the renewal of the ceasefire agreement in Feb 2021 is understood to be an outcome of the UAE mediation.

And last, one may ask how should India respond  to such a gesture of peace from Pakistan? The best response will be to leave Pakistan to Pakistan and not offer it any breathing space. Let Pakistan’s economy collapse, crisis worsen because a resilient Pakistan has always been a bigger nuisance. India has shown this intent by sending a notice to Pakistan seeking modification of the Indus Water Treaty. This will work as another pressure tool to corner a rogue country in strategic terms. Hence, the Indian response that terror and talks can’t go hand in hand is an ideal one.

Also, there is no point in engaging with a regime that is unstable and faces elections in months from now. The electoral factor will by no means allow the Sharifs to experiment with the peace idea as it would be suicidal in view of sensitivity of Indo-Pak relations.

Hence the best strategy is to leave Pakistan alone.

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