August and December are months of introspection in Pakistan. August because, like India, Pakistan emerged as a sovereign nation this month in 1947, and December because it broke up that month in 1971. One partition amidst a bloodbath had created Pakistan; another, also amidst a bloodbath, saw its break-up. August, however, is the time when many Pakistanis measure themselves against the standards they believe their founding fathers — Muhammad Ali Jinnah, in particular — had set for future generations. This time around, such introspection takes place under unusually sombre circumstances given the turbulence and the crisis-wracked chronology of the past year: an economy on life-support with galloping inflation, disastrous floods, numerous terrorist attacks and intensified political and civil-military conflict.
Such a cocktail inevitably catalyses much angst and introspection, which also extend to a juxtaposition with India. If India is seen by many as very much a glass half-empty or a half-full experiment, from a Pakistani perspective it generally appears, and not just from an economic standpoint, as a glass more full than empty. If this is the cause of much schadenfreude in India, we should remind ourselves that from other perspectives— say, a Southeast Asian one — the glass will appear more empty than full.
On its 76th Independence Day on August 14, Pakistan was, however, in the news again because a caretaker administration began taking charge to see the country through the transition period to a new government following a general election. This interim arrangement will be in place for at least a few months.
Over the past year and a half, Pakistan’s military has loomed large over the country’s day-to-day politics. Its jettisoning of Imran Khan and, even more surprising, embrace of the party of the former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, and his brother, Shehbaz Sharif, dominated the news cycle last year with civil-military frictions of surprising intensity between Imran Khan and the military.
That phase of Pakistan’s history now seems to be in the past with Imran Khan in jail and disqualified from politics and a general election in the offing. To what extent will the military determine the make-up of the next government? To what extent will Imran Khan’s party — the remnants of it — have a fair contest? These are the next set of questions that will confront Pakistan soon. The other issues that will remain dominant are the internal security situation with a restive Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, a wobbly relationship with the Taliban government in Afghanistan, and the precarious economic situation.
For India-Pakistan relations, the best prognosis for the immediate future would be a continuation of the minimal stability in place since the February 2021 reaffirmation of the ceasefire on the line of control. Once a new government is in place in Pakistan, or after the general election in India, opportunities for political initiatives may emerge to impart some positive elements to a relationship that is otherwise overwhelmingly adversarial and negative.
Is a more positive orientation desirable and worth working towards? To many in India’s strategic community, a new normal has crystallised in India’s approach to Pakistan over the past six or seven years. This new normal comprises a highly-securitised prism through which Pakistan is viewed given its persistent record of State-sponsored terrorism directed at India. In this perspective, a Pakistan policy is best limited to a narrow security approach as, for a multitude of reasons, nothing is really going to work given the prevailing mindset in Pakistan.
Time will tell whether such an approach constitutes a new normal or only a particularly negative phase in India-Pakistan relations. The burden of history informs us that such relations follow a cyclical path with both positives and negatives and do not rest at any one single point with any degree of permanence.
Notwithstanding the attention which Pakistan’s internal developments may grab in the daily news cycle, that crisis-ridden country actually figures minimally in our perspectives at the current conjuncture. In a little over three weeks, the much-anticipated G20 Leaders’ Summit will begin in Delhi. To many, this event marks a milestone in India’s diplomatic history and reflects its new and high position in the global scheme of things. The summit, therefore, is a platform that will enable India to leave its impress on the future world agenda. To others, the summit has been hyped up excessively and the current extent of global contestation and polarisation means that the chances of positives emerging on an agreed multilateral agenda are remote.
The US-China and US-Russia contestations and a war of attrition in Europe will certainly loom over the forthcoming summit as they have over every major multilateral gathering in the past year and a half. For us in India, each of these global factors has intersected directly and impacted our overall policy postures in manifold ways. Inevitably, therefore, in the run-up to the summit, during it, and in its aftermath, each of these will be omnipresent in our narratives, triggering discussions and analyses about strategic autonomy, multi-alignment and so on.
This is also a good time to focus more sharply on our own region and pause to reflect how much our external security environment has deteriorated in the past few years. The intensity of global contestations and the relief consequent to the end of the pandemic may have cloaked this somewhat sombre reality but that, in fact, is the position: we are in the midst of a phase of deeply adversarial relations with Pakistan and China and also one of deep crisis impacting Afghanistan, Myanmar and Pakistan.
Each of our relationships with these countries has a different texture to it but the aggregate picture is of an adversarial or crisis situation across our entire continental border — from the end of the western seaboard to the beginning of the eastern. This arc of adversity and crisis has necessarily to be the central issue confronting Indian diplomacy today. So regardless of Pakistan’s dire straits this August, it must remain prominently on our radar for that reason alone.
T.C.A. Raghavan is a former High Commissioner to Singapore and Pakistan