The reactions in both India and Pakistan as well as in the rest of the world to the meeting between Prime Ministers Modi and Sharif on the side-lines of the SCO summit in Ufa have been fairly predictable. Leaving aside the incorrigible optimists who keep conjuring up unrealistic visions of normalisation (nothing unpredictable here), there is the usual criticism among the more hard-line elements in both countries. In India, the criticism is more on the meeting itself. In Pakistan, criticism centres on the outcome of the meeting, or to be more specific, the joint statement/briefing/declaration that emerged from the deliberations between the two PMs. In other words, while there is heart-burn in Pakistan over the text of the declaration, in India the problem isn’t so much with the text of the statement as it is with the context of the meeting. Just as the Indian critics can’t put their finger on what really pushed Modi to take yet another initiative towards Pakistan, the Pakistani critics are perplexed about what compelled Sharif to virtually sign on the dotted line and agree to a statement that is so obviously loaded in India’s favour.
The scepticism in India over yet another engagement with Pakistan is primarily based on the fact that there is nothing whatsoever on the ground to suggest that Pakistan has indeed turned a new page in its relations with India. With nothing having changed either in terms of Pakistan’s policy, or its perception or even its psychological make-up on India, only the purblind would expect something positive to emerge from the fledgling process that has been initiated at Ufa. This is so also because given Pakistan’s infinite capacity for strategic delusion, there is a sort of new cockiness in that country. Pakistan thinks it has outmanoeuvred India in Afghanistan, managed to obtain a massive Chinese investment that will kick-start its anaemic economy and restored relations with the West which is not only no longer pressuring it on the issue of terrorism but is also opening up the floodgates of military and economic assistance. Given this context, for India to initiate a meeting with Pakistan, is only going to buttress the Pakistani view that they have stolen a march over India and that their bloody-mindedness is paying dividends.
What is, however, confounding Pakistanis is why, given all these perceived advantages, Pakistan agreed to the Ufa text, which, according to many Pakistani analysts, appears as though it was drafted in South Block. While there is a tangential reference to Kashmir under the umbrella of “all outstanding issues”, there is no structure or framework so far under which it comes on the talks table. The Pakistani National Security Adviser admitted that Kashmir will come on the agenda only in the second stage, which probably will come only after the Ufa track reaches somewhere. The old Composite Dialogue process has been, for now at least, jettisoned. The focus is primarily on terrorism – a long-standing Indian demand – and there is dusting up of an old mechanism – meetings between the Rangers and BSF as well as between the DGMOs – to bring stability on the border and prevent violations of ceasefire. The inclusion of the 26/11 attacks is again something that India wanted and Pakistan was avoiding. It is of course another matter that 26/11 has been included in a somewhat vague manner and chances of the Pakistanis actually delivering on it remain remote. Similarly, the talks on terrorism are likely to degenerate into both sides speaking at each other rather than to each other, especially since Pakistanis are going to muddy the waters by talking about the alleged Indian involvement in Balochistan and the equally bizarre and outlandish allegation of funding the Pakistani Taliban and even the Islamic State terrorists. But while the trajectory of talks is likely to remain unproductive, what is of interest is why the Pakistanis agreed to such a text which they knew wouldn’t be received well at home?
So then what exactly happened at Ufa? It would be stretching the limits of credulity to believe that the Indian negotiators were so brilliant and their Pakistani counterparts so clueless that they were beguiled into agreeing to such a text. The top three Pakistani foreign policy experts at Ufa – Sartaj Aziz, Tariq Fatemi and Aizaz Chaudhry – are seasoned diplomats who would have fully understood the import of what was being announced. It is also difficult to believe that Nawaz Sharif is so keen on, even desperate to, improving relations with India, or for that matter so enamoured of his Indian counterpart, that he was willing to accept everything India proposed. What is also inconceivable is that the civilian Sharif did a deal with India keeping the military Sharif out of the loop. Not just Nawaz Sharif, but even his foreign policy advisors would have known the repercussions of an Ufa if the army wasn’t on board.
Anyone who thinks that Nawaz Sharif okayed the Ufa statement, either in a fit of Punjabi expansiveness or to demonstrate that he is fully competent to take decisions on India and that everyone else in his country, including the Army, would fall in line, is clearly losing touch with reality. But if the army was in the loop on what was going to be decided in Ufa, what compelled it to give the nod? Of course, to the extent that the Army wasn’t directly involved in the negotiations at Ufa, it would be comfortable in the knowledge that the civilian Sharif, and not the military Sharif, would be the fall guy if Ufa backfired. This would bring Nawaz Sharif under greater pressure and make him even more dependent on the Army. But surely, even the Pakistan Army wouldn’t be ready to allow the civilian government to kowtow to India just because this would give them another leverage over the government.
Clearly, the pressure was coming from elsewhere, something that Tariq Fatemi hinted at in his post-Ufa interviews. And that is probably the real story behind Ufa. What appears to be happening is that the G-2 – USA and China – are coming into the act. Until now it was felt that India was being pressured by the US to re-engage Pakistan, not so much to give Pakistan anything as to keep the temperature in the region from boiling over. Now it appears that it was more US persuasion than pressure that led India to take the initiative to re-open talks with Pakistan. Importantly enough, this reopening is happening more or less on the lines India wanted and perhaps this was the assurance that was given to the Indian side with the proviso that it must take the first step. This is where the Chinese enter the equation. Given that the Americans weren’t able to press the Pakistanis even in their own cause – the defeat in Afghanistan stands testimony to this reality – it was unlikely that they could do very much to press Pakistan on India, even less so to agree on an agenda that was being insisted upon by India. But with the Chinese now becoming the patron of Pakistan and the Pakistanis looking to China to pull them out of the pit they have dug themselves into, it could only be China that could pressure Pakistan to do what it needed to do for a re-engagement with India. While the Pakistan Army has been able to cock a snook at the Americans, it can’t do the same with the Chinese.
The new equation therefore is that the Americans nudge India, the Chinese press Pakistan, and G-2 tries to ensure that things don’t go out of control in South Asia. In a sense, both India and Pakistan are giving priority to their larger strategic objectives that tie in with the US and China, respectively, over their mutual hostility and animosity. This doesn’t mean that the animosity will end but only that it will not go beyond the break point, which suits both countries. Perhaps this is also the reason why despite the post-Ufa ceasefire violations along the Line of Control and International Border, both countries have continued to reaffirm their commitment to the understanding reached at Ufa.
The negative aspect for India of this G-2 involvement is that it re-introduces the hyphenation with Pakistan. Secondly, India has never been comfortable with the G-2 calling the shots in South Asia because once they get a toe in, they will keep trying to expand their influence which in turn would restrict India’s strategic space. Third, while the pressure on Pakistan is welcome, it isn’t clear if there are clearly defined metrics on which Pakistan will be asked to deliver, particularly on the issue of terrorism and use of non-state actors. Fourth, there wouldn’t be more than a handful of people in both countries who are in the loop on the Ufa understanding. The problem is that such a back-room is at total variance with the broader public perception and narrative. Apart from the challenge of selling this to the public there is also the problem of communicating the steps towards a possible détente to the forces engaged in an eyeball to eyeball confrontation.
The immediate problem, however, is that while Pakistan may have been pressured to agree to the Ufa agenda, there isn’t anything on the ground to suggest that its capacity for sabotaging this agenda has been curtailed. The post-Ufa flare-up on the LoC and International Border is a clear sign of the double game Pakistan is so adept at playing. With little choice except to give in to the pressure to agree to the Ufa roadmap, Pakistan is now doing everything to undermine it and doing it in a way that the guarantors cannot pin the blame on Pakistan with any degree of certainty. This is precisely what Pakistan did when it allied with the Americans in the war on terror even as it kept its alliance with the Taliban intact. And this is what it is doing now with respect to the engagement with India. The question now is whether Pakistan’s bluff would be called this time, or would it manage to bluff its way out yet again.
(The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author)
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