The track II diplomacy or the backroom effort is yet again providing its role as a crutch in de-escalating and normalizing the fraying bilateral relations of the two nuclear South Asian neighbours, India and Pakistan.
The South Asian region, from Afghanistan to India, is in the hold of dynamic changes right now, which include: US exit, deployment of NATO forces in the region, anaemic economies, threat of a new wave of terrorism, and coronavirus pandemic. A fresh debate has emerged lately after the peculiar invitation of India to Pakistan for holding backchannel talks, especially in the context of the Kashmir dispute. It is to be kept in mind that a backchannel is always activated between two rival states, whatever the political situation is. India and Pakistan have had the backchannel talks back in Nawaz Sharif’s stint, 1999 and 2004 peace process with Vajpayee in Musharraf’s period. It is an excellent way to talk about the bilateral issues of the countries away from the scrutiny of the media, prying eyes of the masses, and the loud noises of the lobbies. In the effect of the talks, the guns have fallen silent on the LOC, hope for peace has emerged, a temporary detente has begun, which is a good omen for the consequential relations of the countries, but it doesn’t look as simple as it appears.
Wishing for peace is one thing, but the ground realities cannot be ignored. Every time Pakistan has taken one step towards peace, it has been pushed two steps backwards. Past is evident that India has always trapped Pakistan into the complex dialogue process by presenting the glare of destiny. India is conducting talks to discuss the Kashmir issue. Still, it seems like these dialogues will also end in discussing matters about trade and security of the region similar to the past. With that, it is a very odd and extraordinary time to hold talks as Modi’s government in the neighbourhood is in a state of fragility. The surreal nature of the talks raises many suspicions and leaves us with the question that either it is a strategic or a tactical move by India.
The ground realities, mercurial relations, strategic dilemma, and the pandemic crises fuel certain suspicions about the revived engagement. First of all, the route taken for the talk was track II diplomacy (backchannel diplomacy), but no diplomat or government official has been highlighted in the current peace process. Pakistan’s security establishment (DG ISI and intelligence) is taking the lead in the backchannel reconciliation talks, primarily a matter of diplomatic or political nature.
Secondly, in contrast to Pakistan’s optimism towards the process, India has not reciprocated the same energy; instead, it is silent on the details of the dialogues. In Pakistan, the officials revealed the backchannel talks to the media, expressing their hope and good wishes for the reconciliation process. Whereas India is not stating its ambitions behind the negotiations with clarity, and Pakistan, in optimism, cannot see it.
In addition, reiterating, the internal conditions of India are delicate and problematic. It appears that the government of Modi is losing its hold in different states of India. The anger and hatred of the masses for the government are unprecedented in the context of covid-19 and the plummet of administration. So, the question pops up that if India is in a weak state already, why would Delhi show flexibility on the dispute of Kashmir in this crisis time!
Moreover, Islamabad has always witnessed Delhi portraying its discomfort and anger when any third party tries to reconcile or meddles in the bilateral relations of the neighbours. This time, unexpected of India, Delhi has agreed upon the backchannel talks in the parleys conducted by the third party, UAE. In fact, in ambiguous terms, other Gulf countries, including KSA, also appeared to be involved in the de-escalation or the peace process of the countries where India, currently, seems to have no problem.
All these suspicions leave room for Islamabad’s think tank to worry about our neighbour’s peculiar behaviour. It is understood that India will not change its stance and claim on Kashmir as the oppression in Kashmir has not lifted (the death of the Hurriyat leader in jail has exacerbated the situation), and it is projected that zero concession will be given on Kashmir. Both countries see this opportunity differently: Pakistan is taking it as a doorway to normalize ties, whereas India wants to wind down the vexed situation between the two countries.
So here, it is questionable that what could be the plausible rationale for India’s surreal or offbeat conduct? To find the answer to this question, we have to delve into the global plus regional dynamics comprehending the security and strategic calculus alongside. The New Delhi action can be justified by the fear of facing two front war situations. It has already met the long standoff and confrontation in Ladakh, now the fear of a two and a half front war (including Kashmir) lingers on the state. One opinion is that as most of the world’s countries are realigning and repositioning themselves to be compatible with the new US government, the Biden administration, Delhi may also want to be in the good books of Washington. For that purpose, India is trying to remove the stains of Human Rights violations in Kashmir through these talks. It is also reasonable to think that India may want to achieve its prioritized goals through secret talks or backroom efforts. In this way, the country can achieve particular goals with an additional benefit that these informal talks cannot bind parties to commitment, and India can leave anytime. Adding to that, this will allow India to dismiss strenuous and tedious formal processes, which Pakistan has long waited for. Besides, the odd behaviour can also be related to the Afghan peace process and the exit of forces. India doesn’t seem to be in a position to lend its bases to the NATO forces as it will make the country more volatile, so it may strike a deal with Pakistan for providing the bases as it did in the past (War on Terror). Lastly, one conjecture may also be made that India is a revisionist state in the region; to uphold its hegemonic posture, it tries to act like a superpower by holding a reconciliatory dialogue with zero expectation of results in mind.
From my standpoint, the dispute resolution of Kashmir is not on the horizon, and it may be another lollipop to Pakistan in the name of dialogues. Indeed, a functional relation is better than constant estrangement or confrontation, but there is a need for greater clarity from the other side. Pakistan should take every step cautiously with a calculated and realistic response as this situation can be turned into malicious filth for Pakistan. With that, Islamabad should encourage New Delhi to revert to formal methods of the peace process with emphasis on a clear road map. The resumption of formal dialogues on the watch of political and diplomatic machinery of the countries is consequential. Wishing for peace and stability is good, but Pakistan must stick to its principle stance on Kashmir in any case and protect it. Indeed, it is a good sign for the prosperity of the region. Still, Pakistan should be on the lookout for further concerns and dynamic changes in the region.