The Eastern Question

Part I

How do states signal credibility and believability to their allies, adversaries and neutral fence-sitters? Given Pakistan’s recently prepared dossier on India’s terrorist involvement in Pakistan, pausing to consider this is important. This is because in the time since the dossier was publicly revealed on November 14, Pakistan has moved swiftly to disseminate the dossier and its contents with the United Nations, the UNSC P5, and members of the OIC. In the same time India has attempted to do the same with a dossier of its own. But will either/both move the needle on the Indo-Pak conflict in the court of international public opinion? And whose side will carry more weight?

The problem is that credibility, much like respect, has to be commanded. If the global reaction to India’s annexation of Indian Occupied Kashmir on August 5 was seen by observers in Islamabad and Srinagar as weak or immoral, this is also because global narratives aren’t calibrated by individual players, unless you happen to be a superpower, or on your way to getting there. On the contrary, narratives are governed by at least four mechanics: global alignments as they exist, regional contingencies, media hegemonies and historical legacies. So while Pakistan may have made considerable and much-needed strides in recent years in developing a narrative for global consumption – one that speaks to having singlehandedly fought the 21st century’s largest inland counterterror war, while contending with a host of regional injustices (from being Washington’s fall-guy in Afghanistan to the target of Indian revanchism from across the border) – dispensing this successfully is intimately connected with recognizing how narratives are rank-ordered and sold in the global marketplace of ideas.

Today Pakistan has the strongest hand it has had in years: it has tallied the costs of its war on terror; it faces a clear kinetic threat from an extremist government in India whose own democratic backsliding is palpable to democracy watchers; and it has played a critical role in facilitating an intra-Afghan dialogue in Doha – an outcome that was anything but a globally foregone conclusion a few months ago. In terms of follow-through Pakistan can now do one of two things. It can let the hand do its work, and hope international opinion will calibrate favorably to Pakistan’s message on India. Or it can roll up its sleeves and focus on indemnifying that messaging by proofing the reputation of the messenger.

If we opt for the latter, we must first internalize five truths.

First, the credibility of any evidence-based anti-India PR campaign abroad will be tarnished unless we first address social intolerance at home. This means the government at the helm must stop otherizing the political opposition, and tread carefully when accusing political actors on both the left and right as playing to Indo-Afghan galleries because it unhelpfully colors its foreign policy messaging with domestic political hues. If not, our messaging gets taken less seriously abroad. Pakistan is actually lucky to have a fairly organic, multi-party recognition of the real threats that the country faces from abroad. But the line between leveraging the support of domestic constituencies to speak truth to global power, and scapegoating political adversaries for domestic gains is a thin one. Blurring that line undercuts the hard work done to distance ourselves from the domestic and foreign policy behavior of our neighbor.

Second, politically heterogeneous countries looking to be taken seriously must work doubly hard at both democratic strengthening at home and conveying their federalist bandwidth abroad. This entails shoring up the sanctity of democratic bodies such as Parliament which are essential if democracy is to work and if Pakistan is to globally signal the democratic scaffolding around its narrative on India. Many (including an incoming Biden Administration) will be quick to remind us that institutions are vital for transparency and debate; what they will stop short of saying is that strong institutions are equally important because they curb the excesses of self-interested elites, which if left unchecked call into question regime credibility. Ergo, countries that are better at signaling a robust transmission line between democratic deliberation and decision-making at home are also more likely to see foreign policy narratives carry heft and elicit international buy-in.

Third, institutional and economic solvency is a critical vessel if a hardy narrative on India is to be effective in the long run. Today India’s GDP of 3 trillion dollars is ten times that of Pakistan’s, even if both countries happen to be closer to each other in GDP per capita. Both countries account for 10% and 20 % of Asia’s total GDP respectively. These numbers matter because they cue relativity to third-parties prone to looking at the region through zero-sum frameworks. They also matter because they translate into the space afforded to countries like Pakistan in multilateral arrangements. To that end, our security and economic planners must now single-mindedly privilege competent and decisive economic management at home over illusory quick fixes or regional alliances as substitutes for economic growth. While neighborhood peace is admittedly a prerequisite for development, states like Pakistan just cannot afford to wait for Afghan peace bids to take hold, or for CPEC-induced windfalls to build up digital and global competitiveness abroad.

Fourth, the most potent weapon that Pakistan carries in its anti-India arsenal today is the fact that it is has both publicly and privately disavowed the non-state actor option of the 1990s, followed closely by the strategic restraint it has exercised in its dealing with the expansionist angst of a hyper nationalist Modi regime. On both dimensions, Pakistan must emphatically stay the course because in addition to not jeopardizing our own internal security, it internationally relays our credibility as the more sober and self-aware of South Asia’s two protagonists, and helps us more convincingly make a case for its election to key UN bodies, while stymieing the efforts of India to become a permanent member of the UNSC.

Finally, a foreign policy predicated on good relations with all and malice to none is necessary to help Pakistan build equity in multiple regional camps – even if they happen to be at cross-purposes with one another. While the West’s focus on the containment of China does force an unenviable binary onto South Asia, Pakistan must refrain from selecting into it more than it absolutely has to. Small and medium-sized powers do not have the luxury of forgoing complex global interdependencies the way countries with economic and political heft do. Playing into regional blocs dilutes the credibility of Islamabad’s position on India by increasing the impression of regional partisanship, and invalidating Pakistan’s own unique historical and geographic circumstances. A much better approach for Pakistan would be to situate itself, as the Prime Minister has thus far done, at the forefront of calls of global debt relief, climate action, regional connectivity, global peacekeeping and combatting Islamophobia. As far as public goods go, these feed directly into reputation and regional standing. Because it is when the latter two are borne off democracy and solvency at home that they will truly be able to help us navigate a rough neighborhood.

A version of this article appeared in The News on 27-11-2020.


Part II

Will peace with India ever be possible? Before the ascent of Narendra Modi, there were certainly a greater number of optimists in Pakistan who believed not only was peace between the two countries possible, but that it was in Pakistan’s long-term interests to have better relations with its eastern neighbor. Almost seven years on, the relationship between the two countries is perhaps the worst it has been at least descriptively speaking since the dark events of 1971. This is because even in moments of acute crisis since, there had always existed, normatively at least, an elite-understanding that total rupture was diplomatically and militarily cost-prohibitive. But notably, and for reasons and events undeniably linked to the BJP’s populist resurgence after the Manmohan Singh era, today both India and Pakistan find themselves at a point where that consensus no longer holds.

This raises a number of important legacy questions around the attempts made by Islamabad’s leaders this last decade in reaching out to New Delhi and trying to move the relationship forward. Were they wrong in trying to appease a regime whose considered opinion was to revise its territorial boundaries? Should Pakistan not have extended as many olive branches as they did, often at political cost to the figures extending them?

These are incredibly difficult questions to answer, in part because they presuppose the amount of agency Pakistan had in dealing with a post-26/11 India that was transforming in ways we perhaps didn’t fully understand. These questions also discount a chronology of events – such as the eruption of widespread anti-India sentiment in the Valley in 2016, and the arrest of Kulbhushan Yadav that same year that came pass not due to Pakistan’s attempts to build equity with the BJP, but despite them. But setting these problems aside for a moment, it may be slightly unfair to suggest that even if our leaders could go back in time, they ought to have behaved differently.

For one, the sowing of the seeds of the BJP’s maximalist intentions South Asia predates the events of the past 20 years. Two, for a country that has cyclically experienced democracy and dictatorship, one thing that Pakistan has done rather well is maintain some semblance of mainstream political consensus on the overarching tone and tenor of our relationship with India. This is of course a byproduct of the fact that foreign policy with India has always been heavily securitized, and that barring the Musharraf dictatorship, policy formulation on India has necessitated buy-in from political stakeholders, both democratic and institutional, before being implemented. The greatest domestic friction to occur over India since 2008 was arguably during Prime Minister Sharif’s third premiership when, by initially retaining key security portfolios (foreign affairs and defense) the then-prime minister fueled a widely held belief that the Sharifs were placing a premium on individualizing and privatizing diplomacy with India, rather than resorting to an institutionalized search for pathways forward. The Sharif-Jindal episode that led to ruckus in Parliament added to an unfortunate impression that Nawaz Sharif was a lone ranger on a mission to improve relations with India. The reason this was unfortunate was because it was simply not true. Until August 5, 2019, there was actually fairly little disagreement in any center in Pakistan on the importance of turning a page and starting afresh, should India reciprocate. And for all the apparent dysfunction in civil-military relations between 2013 and 2018, even the military it seemed was invested in a regional future embedded in trade, regional stability and dialogue. And so when disagreement did surface over Mian sahib’s going out on a limb on India, the nature of the disagreement by and large tended to be procedural rather than substantive: detractors took issue with pace, timing and sequencing, as opposed to the logic of outreach itself. Let it be remembered that while the BJP’s sweeping victory in 2014 was symbolic, so was the unanimity of support in Islamabad for Prime Minister Sharif’s decision to attend his counterpart’s swearing-in.

That said, there is also an argument to be made that after 2014, as India steadily became more and more self-assured and imbibed in its regional demagoguery, Pakistan should have become less and less sanguine about the possibility of a viable peace between the two countries. When it came to power six years ago, the BJP had already signaled in its manifesto the intention to unilaterally revoke the special status of Jammu & Kashmir. The party’s anti-Muslim bonafides were hardly new. Within months of its ascent, Modi and Doval began endorsing an incremental increase in the number of violations along both the Line of Control and Working Boundary resulting in the loss of civilian lives. By the time Pathankot and then Uri rolled around, followed by India’s systematic downgrading of relations and cancellation of talks, the absence of any institutional desire in New Delhi to improve ties had been made amply clear.

What then does this say about Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and later Prime Minister Imran Khan, who both risked strategic space for diminishing returns by reaching out to India? Here the answer is simple, and should go to both leaders’ credit as statesmen looking to build bridges. They overestimated India’s own rationality and the desire of India’s new ruling elite to work towards a better collective future for South Asia. And they underestimated the appetite India’s new rulers had for a relationship characterised by structural incompatibility.

These conclusions are important because there is a lot for Pakistan’s present leaders and political classes to learn, especially folks prone to reflexively politicising memory of the last decade of Indo-Pak relations, and associated outreach to India, for domestic gain. There are also lessons here on how Pakistan can and should talk about India on the international stage – i.e. if India has reaffirmed its own strategic pre-eminence as Pakistan’s principal external threat, there should be no ambiguity in who bears responsibility for making that choice.

A version of this article appeared in The News on 28-11-2020.

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