Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif on Tuesday said he was willing to resume the stalled peace negotiations with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi. However, just hours later, his office went back on what he said and reiterated Islamabad’s position that it would not enter into talks unless Delhi rolled back its decision to abrogate Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy.
Formal bilateral dialogue between the two South Asian rivals has fallen apart over the past seven years over allegations of terror and the politics of Kashmir. But now, with the clarification from the prime minister’s office notwithstanding, Pakistan’s deep economic crisis and its military dealing with an unprecedented popular onslaught over decades of political meddling, the government and the military see value in reducing animosity with India.
A frozen dialogue
Since 1947, the territorial dispute over Jammu and Kashmir has been the main point of confrontation between the two countries. While India and Pakistan have fought several wars over seven-and-a-half decades, there have been some peacetime overtures such those by prime ministers Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif in 1999.
Since the late 2010s, however, formal bilateral ties between the neighbours have seen a complete breakdown, first over the terror attacks in Uri, Pathankot and Pulwama, all of which India says were conducted by Pakistan-backed terror outfits.
Later in August 2019, following India’s decision to abrogate Article 370 of its Constitution relating to autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir, Imran Khan, who was Pakistan’s prime minister at the time, rejected the possibility of dialogue until Delhi reinstated the provision. However, this condition is unacceptable for Delhi. The Ministry of External Affairs said this was India’s “internal matter”.
On the other hand, for Delhi, Islamabad ending support for anti-India terrorist groups operating from Pakistani soil is a prerequisite.
Despite this stalemate at the formal level, India and Pakistan have reportedly held backchannel talks and even managed to implement a fresh ceasefire along the Line of Control since 2021. The Line of Control is a military demarcation between India and Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir. It is not the same as an international border or the territorial lines that they claim.
‘Have learnt lesson’
Sharif’s call to Modi to help reset bilateral ties came earlier this week in an interview with the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya news channel. “My message to the Indian leadership and Prime Minister Narendra Modi is that let us sit down on the table and have serious and sincere talks to resolve our burning issues like Kashmir,” Sharif said. “It is up to us to live peacefully and make progress or quarrel with each other and waste time and resources.”
Sharif said Pakistan does not want to waste resources on “bombs and ammunition” and instead wanted peace with India. “We have had three wars with India, and they have only brought more misery, poverty and unemployment to the people,” Sharif said. “We have learnt our lesson, and we want to live in peace with India, provided we are able to resolve our genuine problems” – referring to the long-standing dispute over Kashmir.
He then went a step further to suggest that the United Arab Emirates should mediate between the two South Asian nations. India’s Ministry of External Affairs did not immediately react to Sharif’s comments.
Drivers of Pakistan’s approach
The timing of Sharif’s remarks calling for resumption of a formal dialogue carries significance. Massive floods in Pakistan between July and October have left behind damages estimated to be more than $30 billion. And even before the floods, the country was walking into an economic crisis, raising concerns that it could witness an economic collapse similar to Sri Lanka’s. Consequently, Pakistan’s government has been seeking financial support from friendly nations and global lenders such as the International Monetary Fund.
While Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, among others, have already promised support, the economic crisis continues to deepen.
Meanwhile, the country’s military, often described as the “deep state” for its long history of political meddling, is facing an unprecedented attack from civil society, fanned by Khan.
Avinash Paliwal, associate professor in international relations at SOAS, University of London, said that these factors have led Pakistan to see value in improving relations with India. “Pakistan cannot afford high-intensity animosity with India because its economy is in doldrums and its military has not faced the ongoing populist onslaught in a long time,” Paliwal told Scroll.in. “Additionally, the rewards of working with China have not been significant.”
As a result, there is an understanding within the Pakistani government and the military, since former army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s tenure, that they need to stabilise relations with India, Paliwal said. “Pakistan needs dialogue more than India.”
Sharat Sabharwal, former Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan, also wrote in The Indian Express that Islamabad needs a “calmer relationship” with Delhi owing to its increasing domestic challenges such as the struggling economy.
Sharif’s comments on resuming dialogue is a marker of continuity of Pakistan’s strategy of attempts to stabilise relations with India, Paliwal said.
However, beyond economic considerations and the military’s concerns, there are domestic political factors too. Sharif is facing political pressures of running a coalition government and is being repeatedly attacked by Opposition leader Khan ahead of the general election expected later this year.
In fact, the clarification from the prime minister’s office came after the Opposition criticised Sharif’s comments. Fawad Chaudhry, a senior leader of the Tehreek-e-Insaf, the party led by Imran Khan, accused Sharif of reversing Islamabad’s approach towards the Kashmir dispute and said “begging for talks” is not Pakistan’s policy.
Paliwal suggested this may be the reason behind Sharif’s office issuing the clarification. “The qualifier from the Pakistani Prime Minister’s Office was because of political pressure not only from the Opposition, but also from within the alliance,” Paliwal said. “The Pakistan People’s Party [one of the major parties in Sharif’s coalition] is going its own way.”
He added: “Pakistan understands India will not reverse abrogation of Article 370. Bajwa understood that. But they will continue to take this stand for political reasons.”