The three structural dead weights of India–Pakistan relations
10 Oct 2018|

On 2 September, ahead of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit, the Pentagon announced the cancellation of US$300 million in aid to Pakistan for its alleged failure to take effective action against terrorist networks operating from its soil, including the Haqqani network and the Afghan Taliban. This was part of a broader cut announced on 4 January. Meanwhile, the history of unsettled borders, periodic wars and continual armed clashes, combined with growing nuclear arsenals in both countries, makes India–Pakistan relations a highly critical question for Asia and world security.

The election of cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan as prime minister has fuelled speculation on the prospects for improvement. They are dim, weighed down by structural drags of the three ‘Ms’ rooted in the nature of the Pakistani state: the mullahs, the military, and the militants. Khan’s history of links with and political support for the three Ms is itself a troubling reminder of their pervasive influence in Pakistani society.

Even the Kashmir dispute is more about clashing visions of national identity than territory. India was established and functions as a secular democratic republic. Kashmir is the only surviving Muslim-majority province in the republic; the rest chose to cast their lot with Pakistan with partition in 1947. The numbers involved are small. At under 10 million, Kashmiri Muslims comprise just 5% of India’s total Muslim population. But because Jammu and Kashmir is the sole Muslim-majority state, its loss would cut to the core of India’s national identity.

Equally, however, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan was founded as a custodian of Islam, a fortress of the faith and the home for all the subcontinent’s Muslims. Pakistan is the only country in the world to name its capital after a religion. The continued existence of Jammu and Kashmir as an Indian state negates Pakistan’s founding ideology. It is in this sense that Kashmir represents unfinished business from the birth of the subcontinent’s twins in 1947. Since then, identity politics have become an even more powerful force across the world.

Second, Pakistan is a military-dominant state. Civilian governments, in office for under half of Pakistan’s existence, are subservient to the powerful military, particularly on national security, nuclear policy and Kashmir. These three between them determine Pakistan’s relationship with India. The overall shape and content of the India policy therefore is under military control. Khan was the military’s favoured candidate and it tilted the playing field heavily in his favour by bribing and intimidating opponents and the press, and manipulating the vote count.

Nawaz Sharif fell foul of the military in both his terms as PM. The first ended in 1999 with a military coup by General Pervez Musharraf, who had sabotaged Sharif’s political outreach to India with the clandestine capture of Kargil behind Sharif’s back. In his second stint, Sharif again tried to engage with India’s PM Narendra Modi. He acknowledged Pakistan’s role in terrorist acts in India, but had become convinced that Pakistan was producing more terrorism than could safely be exported. The military–judicial nexus teamed up to disqualify and imprison him.

This is not to say that Khan will meekly succumb to military demands. The scale of his electoral success is testament to a growing support base across the country’s different regions and sections. His tenacity, self-belief and discipline could be harnessed to displace the discredited old politics. He could impose his personality cult to outflank the army and consolidate his political base by acting on the deeply corrosive corruption, while initiating health and social-security measures for the poor. He has often spoken of creating an Islamic welfare state.

But the lack of an outright majority and dependence on independents and small parties will further hobble the scope for freedom. Few who are familiar with Pakistan’s history and politics would be willing to bet on Khan being triumphant if the military moves to thwart any overtures, or reciprocal gestures, of friendship towards India. He has also been a supporter of Pakistan’s nuclearisation.

The third critical aspect of the Pakistani state is extensive infiltration by Islamists. Khan hasn’t troubled to hide his sympathies for their narrative, to the point of sometimes appearing to be an apologist. This is why he is known in some quarters, including India, as Taliban Khan. Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst, calls him ‘the most anti-American politician in South Asia’. He is prone to conspiracy theories, blames many of Pakistan’s ills on the US and accuses it of treating Pakistan like a ‘doormat’. He has endorsed the Taliban cause in Afghanistan as justified by Islam and supported the Taliban’s Islamic justice. His party opposed many women’s rights bills in several provinces. The playboy cricketer of yore has morphed into a puritan Muslim fit to be PM of Pakistan.

Pakistan is located at the geographic and strategic crossroads of the Middle East, Central Asia and South Asia. Viewed from New Delhi, it lies also at the intersection of Islamic jihadism, international terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and the struggle for civilian democracy. The tactic of Pakistan-based cross-border terrorism has been used repeatedly to kill promising green shoots of goodwill gestures and peace overtures from either side.

For India, there are many upsides and no downside to a turnaround in the nature of the Pakistani state that softens its Islamic identity, cleanses the country of jihadists, and circumscribes the military’s role in Pakistan’s economy, politics and foreign policy. However, although Khan may feel compelled to temper his innate religiously fired hostility towards India, it would be a mistake to pin hopes on any major efforts to reform the state under his leadership. Meanwhile, Modi seems blind to the danger that his nationalist base may be turning India into a Hindu Pakistan.