To engage or not to engage

Harsha Kakar
The first season of the Games of Thrones has concluded in Pakistan and Shehbaz Sharif has assumed the chair of the PM. His council of ministers have been sworn in. Legitimacy of the government remains in question as there is no opposition. All representatives of Imran Khan’s PTI have resigned, and his party is demanding immediate polls. The Pakistan President, Arif Alvi, neither swore in the PM nor his cabinet.
On assuming his appointment, Shehbaz spoke on standard subjects, refusing to deviate from known Pakistani stance. He mentioned closer ties with China, US, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Traditionally all Pak PMs first visits have been to Saudi Arabia and China, which Shehbaz will adhere to. As expected, he blamed the Imran Khan led government for the economic mess.
Further, similar to his predecessors, Kashmir and India were at the forefront of Shehbaz’s comments. He stated, ‘We want good ties with India, but it cannot happen without a peaceful resolution to the Kashmir question. We will raise the issue of Kashmir on every international platform.’ He added, ‘I call upon Modi to come and resolve the J and K issue and then let’s fight poverty together.’ This is a standard rant by all Pak PMs.
PM Modi in his customary congratulatory tweet to Shehbaz stated, ‘India desires peace and stability in a region free of terror, so that we can focus on our developmental challenges and ensure the well-being and prosperity of our people.’ Shehbaz responded, ‘Peaceful settlement of outstanding disputes including Jammu & Kashmir is indispensable. Pakistan’s sacrifices in fighting terrorism are well-known.’
Traditionally, Indian PMs write a congratulatory letter to all newly appointed Pak counterparts. Modi did the same. He wrote calling for, ‘an environment free of terror and violence,’ to enable us, ‘to focus our attention on the development and progress of our people.’ In response, Shehbaz wrote, ‘Pakistan remains committed to the maintenance of regional peace and security. This can be best achieved through meaningful engagement and peaceful resolution of all outstanding disputes.’ Again, nothing new. Comments from both were on standard lines.
It is expected that the two leaders would come face-to-face during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Tashkent on July 17th this year. Reports mention of backchannel discussions to consider whether a formal meeting could be arranged between the PMs. Simultaneously, intelligence reports mention that all terrorist launchpads in POK have terrorists, which Pak would attempt to infiltrate into Kashmir. At the same time, the ceasefire agreed to by the two army’s continues to hold along the LOC. The question is whether a formal meeting would be beneficial.
None of Shehbaz’s statements have hinted towards any move contrary to Pakistan’s standard position on Kashmir and other disputes. This was anyway unlikely as any change in position would lead to a backlash from Imran who is fighting to regain political space and remains a strong contender in case elections are held shortly and not interfered with by the army. Imran had over the years termed the Sharif’s as friends of Modi, whom he accused of being anti-Kashmiris. Further, Imran’s demand of rolling back article 370, prior to talks, would never be met, providing him further ammunition.
In Pakistan, India is considered a nation which tramples hopes of Kashmiris and attacks Muslims. With the current dispensation in power in Delhi, this feeling is unlikely to end. Simultaneously, there is a change in geopolitical currents with the world moving towards muti-polarity and India carving its global space, while Pakistan remains ignored. The Ukraine crisis resulting in increased fuel and gas prices are hurting Pak. Pakistan’s food grain imports will be severely impacted with no exports from Ukraine and Russia. It has limited choice but to turn towards India. Pak is also seeking to reset relations with the US, from where pressures on peaceful ties with India will flow. It needs the US to leverage funds from the IMF and exit the Grey List of FATF.
With Pak-Afghan relations moving downhill, their western borders would face instability and increased attacks by groups seeking independence of Baluchistan and the TTP. This will suck in most of their defence budget. Tensions with Iran over support to Baluch freedom groups continue. A peaceful border with India is thus a financial and operational necessity.
The current Pak government is a shaky coalition, which has to carefully tread the beaten path. Any non-traditional step could result in a breakdown in the coalition. A lot would depend on what happens in Pakistan in the intervening months. In case Imran is acted against in the foreign funding case currently under listing with the election commission or in the sale of gifts, dominating media space in Pakistan, then his power would witness a drop. If these cases drag, he could always act as a spoilsport and play hardball.
Further, it was Imran who withdrew High Commissioners and stopped trade between India and Pakistan. Does Shehbaz have support from his hybrid government to reverse these decisions. If these are done, then it is a message to India that the power behind the throne, the Pak army, seeks reproachment and desires relations move forward from the ebb at which Imran left them. Recommencement of trade would benefit Pak as it currently procures products available cheaply in India, wheat, pharmaceuticals and cotton, at far higher costs, from other nations.
There is also no doubt that Pakistan’s priority is to resolve its financial crisis. With the IMF placing further restrictions on grant of additional loans, Shehbaz faces a dilemma. If he accedes to their demands and reverses Imran’s decisions, he could face an internal backlash. If he does not, loans may not flow. China is their last hope. Hence, China could demand its pound of flesh in the form of Pak’s foreign policy.
In any case, with differences in perception between India and Pakistan, Kashmir cannot be settled in any near timeframe. This is well known to all. Thus, talks may only display a determination to find a resolution, while removing artificial barriers created by Imran. Simultaneously, a terrorist strike, post the meeting, could impact Modi. To engage or not remains a catch 22 situation. With a few months to go, it would be best to wait and watch if Shehbaz reverses Imran’s hostile decisions and offers an olive branch.
The author is Major General (Retd)