During the last two decades, one could observe a circular path in India-Pakistan relations, than a linear trajectory. Consider the following events since 1998 – the nuclear tests, Lahore summit, Kargil War (1999), Agra Summit (2001), militant attack on the Indian Parliament (2001), military standoff (2001-02), bilateral ceasefire agreement (2004), bus and truck across J&K (2005-08), Mumbai attack (2008), militant strikes in Uri and Pathankot (since 2015), Pulawama (2019) and the cross border strikes (2019).
Five reasons could be traced for India-Pakistan relations moving in a circular trajectory.
The Changes in Leadership
One of the primary reasons for the circular nature of the bilateral relationship is the continuous change in leadership in both countries. Since 1998, India has witnessed two sets of democratic governments led by the BJP and the Congress. Within these two there have been three leaders – Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh, and Narendra Modi.
In Pakistan – there were two forms of governments – democratic and dictatorial, and four sets of governments led by the PML-N, PML-Q, PPP and now the PTI. There have been four leaders at the helm – Nawaz Sharif, Gen Musharraf (who later became President), Zardari and now Imran Khan. Besides, there have been three Army Chiefs – Gen Kayani, Gen Raheel Sharif and Gen Bajwa – exerting influence over Zardari, Sharif and Imran Khan.
Besides the above leaders at the political level, there has also been a national security apparatus in both countries with foreign and home ministries, and National Security Advisors.
Every leader in the Indo-Pak context has pursued a particular course. If Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh have argued for a soft approach in addressing the bilateral relations, Modi and his advisors have been arguing for a muscular approach.
Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh pursued a policy to soften the border with more bridges across the international border and Line of Control (LoC); the bus and train services between the two countries, the bus and truck services across the LoC amplified their approaches. On the other side, Gen Musharraf started with a militaristic approach and took a U-turn with a ceasefire. From initiating a war in Kargil to make a public claim that the UNSC resolutions on J&K are no more relevant and allow cross-LoC movement of bus and truck services, he travelled a substantial distance in softening Pakistan’s approach.
President Zardari could not do much in the post-2008 phase. Perhaps, he didn’t find bilateral relations with India as a priority. Nawaz Sharif could have done better when he returned to power in 2014, but he also struggled to maintain better civil-military relations. Later, he got embroiled with the Panama politics, leading to a judicial coup and the subsequent downfall of PML-N.
Narendra Modi’s visit to Nawaz Sharif’s residence, in retrospect, appears to be an exception. The norm was and has been to pursue a muscular approach towards Pakistan.
The constant change in leadership in both countries has been a primary reason for the bilateral relations moving in circles. To avoid this circular trap, both countries will have to consider India-Pakistan relationship outside the partisan politics. Easier said than done.
J&K and India-Pakistan Circle
Is J&K a problem between India and Pakistan, or is J&K an expression of the Indo-Pak problem?
While the role of leadership has been prominent in the Indo-Pak context, their perception of an endgame in J&K really helped them take the bilateral relations forward or backwards.
There have been two layers – internal and bilateral – on how subsequent leaders in India and Pakistan since 1998 perceived J&K. On both accounts – domestic and bilateral vis-à-vis J&K, Indian and Pakistani positions have been changing since the days of Vajpayee and Musharraf. Internally Vajpayee looked at J&K from an insaniyat prism; Manmohan Singh continued the same. Both Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh saw stability in J&K as a domestic and bilateral means. Both pursued a soft approach in emotionally integrating Kashmir Valley, thereby strengthening the political linkages between New Delhi and Srinagar.
Both Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh had also realised the need for a stable LoC to normalise the situation within Kashmir valley. The normalisation in Kashmir valley, in turn, further stabilised and strengthened the LoC.
As the situation within J&K and across the LoC during 2005-2015 would demonstrate, that there is a symbiotic relationship between a stable LoC and a peaceful Kashmir valley. Despite the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai, the above interaction between the two and its subsequent implications continued.
Modi and his team have been pursuing a different approach to both the LoC and Kashmir Valley. Loosely termed as a muscular approach, the present government believes in a tough policy towards both the LoC and Kashmir valley. Contrary to Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, Modi and his team have been pursuing a political and legal approach in integrating Kashmir Valley, thereby disrupting the emotional linkages that have been slowly developing between New Delhi and Srinagar. Along the LoC, the present government believes in a stricter response to any military adventures and militant interventions.
As the situation since 2015 would demonstrate, there is also a symbiotic relationship between an unstable LoC and a disquiet Kashmir valley.
Second, besides the leadership in Delhi, the approach of national parties in J&K and their immediate endgame in the State politics have played a crucial role in the linkage between Kashmir and Indo-Pak circular movements.
During Vajpayee’s period, the BJP’s state politics in J&K had a limited role. The Congress during Manmohan Singh’s period looked at the broader national interests and at times even sacrificed its own immediate interests within J&K. The Congress was less ambitious within J&K and allowed a larger space to the State parties and local leaders – primarily the PDP and the National Conference. Despite differences, one could see a pattern in how Congress worked with the Abdullahs and the Muftis.
BJP within J&K today is ambitious and assertive. The political agenda of the party is equally and at times even more important, than the national interest. Perhaps, for the BJP’s present leadership, its State agenda goes well with its national agenda. Both are in sync, unlike during the days of the Congress.
Third, intra-regional differences between Jammu, Kashmir and increasingly even Ladakh – also is playing a role in how the different sub-regions and communities see the LoC and Indo-Pak relationship. Today, there is a significant polarisation within J&K across ethnic, regional and communal divides on Indo-Pak endgame and how they pursue the future of J&K.
Pakistan’s Kashmir Endgame
Pakistan’s approach towards its larger Kashmir endgame since 1998 has been varying. While it used militancy extensively during the 1980s and 1990s, its intrusions in Kargil during 1999 marked a substantial change. While the reasons for its intrusions have been discussed elsewhere in detail, the subsequent Kargil War had its own implications on the India-Pakistan cyclic relations.
Post Kargil War and post-2001 attack on the Indian Parliament, Musharraf as both the General and the Army Chief changed his approach. The ceasefire agreement with India in 2003, the bus service between two parts of J&K in 2005, the four-point formula for Kashmir and turning off the militant tap – all played an essential role in leading towards a decisive phase in the Indo-Pak cycle.
Musharraf’s position later weakened within Pakistan. Gen Kayani became the Chief of the Army Staff in 2007. The general elections in 2008 and the assassination of Benazir Bhutto before it led to the return of the PPP to power. Unlike 2003-2007, which saw the consolidation of political and military leadership under Musharraf, post-2007, it changed. Gen Kayani and President Zardari were two different men.
The terrorist attack in Mumbai has to be seen in this background. Civil-military relations within Pakistan have been under tensions since 2008.
The military has a more significant role in shaping Pakistan’s policies towards India and J&K since 2008. Though it has been the case since the 1980s (or even before that), there have been phases in which the political leadership attempted to take charge. For example, the Lahore bus and the summit between Nawaz Sharif and Vajpayee took place outside the military’s purview in Pakistan. Also, an analysis of India-Pakistan relations needs a nuanced approach of Musharraf’s period and the role of the military under his leadership as the Army Chief and the President.
Militant Groups, Militancy and the Indo-Pak Circle
The armed groups and the militancies have never been a monolithic entity. There have been multiple militant groups within J&K (from the JKLF to the Hizbul), and Pakistani jihadi groups fighting in the name of Kashmir (from the Lashkar-e-Toiba to the Jaish-e-Mohammad). The nature of these militant groups and their political objectives, and their linkages with Pakistan’s Establishment defined the role of militant groups in shaping the outcome of India-Pakistan cycle.
During recent years, there is another factor to the above complex – the nature of linkages between the militant groups and their handlers in the Establishment. Do these groups have an independent objective today and willing to pursue them outside what Pakistan’s establishment may want?
Though the Establishment in Pakistan would prefer the jihadi groups to be under its total control, so that the latter could be used as a tool, one should not also entirely discount that these groups could act on their own, independent of what the former wants. This would pose a greater danger to the Indo-Pak circle.
The Regional & International Environments
Finally, the regional and international environments also play a role in international actors – primarily the US and China, pressurising the two countries to stay the course or otherwise. The US War on Terrorism in Afghanistan, China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and the India-US Strategic partnership, in particular, exert pressure or reduce it depending on what these two big powers want in the region.
The international interests in the region may not pressurise India and Pakistan to pursue a negative approach. However, the immediate interests of the US and China may play a role pressurising India and Pakistan from taking a downward spiral.
The above is based on an assumption, that India and Pakistan could be influenced by the US and China. It may very well not be the case as well.
Can the Circle become a Line?
It can. And it should. However, it may not. At least not in the immediate future.
Also, the starting and end points of the circle may not be the same, whenever the cycle is over. It may shift on the negative side. And it has been since the Lahore Summit.