Dialogue July- September, 2005, Volume 7  No. 1

Internal Dynamics and Prospects for Indo-Pak Peace Process

Sushant Sareen

Much of the focus on the current peace process has been on the external factor and influences that are supposedly driving this process. It is almost as though analysts, observers and practitioner of diplomacy believe that the external influence can operate in isolation especially when it comes to a country like Pakistan which has a stunted and tattered polity dominated by the military. And if the military is backing the process, at least ostensibly, then why waste time on analyzing the internal political dimension of the peace process, or so the thinking goes. But as a perceptive commentator once said, Pakistan is hardly a perfect dictatorship. Despite the dominance of the army in politics, the political impulses of the people of Pakistan have a critical bearing on the actions or decisions that even military strongmen take in that country. In that sense, politics is alive and well in Pakistan, and ultimately the future of the peace process will depend critically on how well the process is sold politically and the acceptability of the process among political players in Pakistan.

The Impulse for Peace

There is no doubt that over the last few years there has been a sea change inside Pakistan as far as India’s image as an inveterate and implacable enemy is concerned. The desire for peace with India is palpable. What is more, this desire extends beyond the usual suspects – the left-liberals. There are any number of quintessential establishment figures who are today expressing themselves openly in favor of peace with India. From politicians to big business and from civil society organizations to farmer lobbies, everyone is talking of normalizing relations with India. No longer is India bashing a popular slogan in elections. Even within the right-wing religious parties alliance, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), the opinion is sharply divided when it comes to the question of the peace process with India with the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam in favor of a dialogue and the Jamaat Islami opposed to any talks and in favor of waging a millenarian Jihad against India.

Other mainstream political parties like the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) too see gains for themselves in the peace process. There is a belief that once the Pakistan army enters into a peace deal with India, the raison d’etre of the army’s role in the country’s politics will end. The ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Q) and its coalition partners too are backing the peace process. They are the votaries of peace not only because this is the policy of the military ruler on who’s sufferance they are in power, but also because they see political gains in jumping onto the peace band-wagon. It is for this reason that the president of the ruling party, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussein brought a delegation of his party to establish contacts with Indian political leaders. Indian political parties too have been reciprocating by visiting Pakistan and the visits of the Left leaders HS Surjeet and AB Bardhan and later the leader of opposition, LK Advani are notable in this respect.

While at the political level there appears to be a massive change in approach towards India, this is in part because of political calculation (hostility no longer brings votes and there are more pressing issues at home than the demonization of the neighbor) and in part because of a push from an incipient and a fledgling peoples movement in favor of peace. The exchange of delegations of farmers, lawyers, judges, businessmen and traders, sportsmen, journalists, academicians etc has been quite unprecedented. This has generated goodwill at the mass level that has broken many of the myths and misconception of India.

Significantly, the change in mindset and the desire for peace is most stark in Punjab. This was the province where being hostile towards India was seen a badge of honor. A Pakistani politician from Sindh once told this writer: the hostility towards India becomes a political factor only the Raiwind to Rawalpindi belt. The other provinces of Pakistan were at worst indifferent towards India and at best saw India as a possible counter to the overwhelming Punjabi dominance in the country. Now the Punjabi civil war seems to be over and a process of reconciliation and re-discovery of cultural and ethnic roots of a divided people seems to have started.

Another very important change that can be witnessed inside Pakistan is that the realization is sinking in that Pakistan has a lot to gain from engaging India and entering into a cooperative relationship with it in the economic sphere. Until the 1980’s and even the 1990’s then general approach in Pakistan was that it wanted a solution of its desire on the Kashmir issue and once it annexed Kashmir, it would turn its back on India and concentrate on the Middle-East, West Asia and Central Asia. Now however Pakistanis are increasingly becoming aware that while they will continue to have vital interests in West Asia and Central Asia and the Middle-East, they cannot afford to turn their back on the prospects that South Asia and in particular a growing and robust Indian economy holds for them. In India, the converse has happened. While there is no dearth of business and industry interests in Pakistan, at the mass level India appears to be of the view that once it can settle its disputes with neighbors, it can concentrate on rest of the world and at best keep its engagement with its neighbors at a subsidiary level. Be that as it may, the interest in an economic relationship with India and benefiting from India’s technical expertise in areas like Information Technology, engineering and agriculture are attracting a number of Pakistanis.

At the level of the Pakistani establishment (including the army, the bureaucracy and politicians) the costs of the conflict with India are finally being realized. Pakistan can simply not afford to carry along the path it had adopted in the 1990’s, which is now being seen as a lost decade for the country. A growing Indian economy has made the policy of military parity unaffordable and this sunk in when a couple of years back the increase in the Indian defence budget alone was more than Pakistan’s entire defence budget. Apart from the fiscal bind that Pakistan faces in a conflict with India, there has been the fall-out of the proxy war policy on the economy – it destroyed the law and order situation in the country, in turn demolishing investor and business confidence which in turn led to growth rates plummeting. The spread of the Jihad culture in the country gave it the image of the ‘most dangerous place on earth’ and dried all foreign investment. Pakistan’s tit-for-tat nuclear explosions in 1998 dried all foreign aid and subjected the country to a crippling sanctions regime.

Even during the decades when Pakistan’s growth outstripped India’s anemic growth (or the Hindu rate of growth), Pakistan’s dependence on foreign assistance for defence and development was quite high. In fact, without external assistance Pakistan’s economy could not afford the confrontation with India. But with India on the high growth path coupled with Pakistan’s growing international isolation on account of its adventurist foreign policy and the consequent drying of external assistance, the economy went into a tail-spin. Suddenly, Pakistan was being called “an almost failed state”. The imminent prospect of failing as a state acquainted the Pakistan army with the imperatives of the economy. With economic revival becoming the buzzword in the Pakistan military-bureaucratic establishment circles, the manner in which the Generals viewed the strategic environment changed drastically. Suddenly, India was not only seen as a threat and an enemy, but also as an economic opportunity and a partner in development.

More importantly, after 9/11, the international environment changed and no one in the international community was willing to turn a blind eye to the infrastructure of jihad that has been operating inside Pakistan with impunity for nearly two decades. While the Pakistanis understood the need for changing their policy on their Western frontier immediately after 9/11, it took many months before it finally dawned on the Generals that their policy of fighting terror on their Western frontier while supporting terror on the Eastern frontier was no longer tenable or sustainable. This meant that a political approach had to be adopted vis-à-vis India in order to wind down and bottle up the jihad genie. But it was equally important that India reciprocate by agreeing to talk ‘seriously and sincerely’ with Pakistan on the vexed issue of Kashmir. This would give Pakistan government the necessary face-saver for what would naturally be seen by right-wing elements as yet another U-turn in policy.

But the need to wind down the jihad against India was equally the result of the blow-back of this policy inside Pakistan – the mushrooming militias, the social regression that the growing radicalism brought about in the society, the economic fallout of jihad on business and investor climate, the deteriorating law and order situation and what a very perceptive Pakistani commentator, Khaled Ahmed, calls loss of internal sovereignty. Interestingly, Pakistan’s domestic compulsions to wind up the jihad matched India’s interest to see the jihadi infrastructure being wound up. Despite the irresistible temptation, it would hardly suit India to be bloody-minded about Pakistan’s past shenanigans and let it stew in its own jihadi juices by refusing to give it the necessary face-saver.

If anything, this last factor will be extremely critical in the future trajectory of the peace process. Pakistan knows that the only real leverage it has on India is terrorism. With India displaying a willingness to enter into a dialogue with Pakistan on Kashmir to seek a stable solution to the problem, the utility of terrorism as an instrument reduces to that extent. If India refuses to engage with Pakistan and encourage it to wind up the jihad factory by giving in on peripheral issues, the Pakistani regime will have a much more difficult time in reversing the jihad culture in the country. With India refuses to play ball, Pakistan will face a catch-22 situation: it will not be able to allow the jihadis to operate with impunity because of international factors and at the same time, with no gains to show on the Kashmir front, it will find it difficult to crackdown on the jihadi infrastructure because of the fear of a domestic political backlash by right-wing elements in the political and military-bureaucratic establishment.

Why the Process remains Unstable

While there are a lot of positives that are driving the peace process, it would be unrealistic to imagine that all is well and that the process is “irreversible”. The single biggest problem in the peace process is that a military solution doesn’t appear to be within the realm of the possible. A sort of military stalemate has been reached in Kashmir between India and Pakistan. With neither side enjoying the kind of military superiority to force a solution on the other, or at the very least make the other side realize the futility of conflict, a negotiated settlement remains the only way out. But this also means that both sides still believe that they can get a solution closest to their desired solution.

Here Pakistan believes that it has an upper hand. The reason is that Pakistan wants to change the status quo in Kashmir, and any settlement that does this can be seen to be a victory for Pakistan. In territorial terms this means any ‘LoC plus’ solution would be acceptable to Pakistan. At the very minimum any joint control or shared sovereignty would also be acceptable to Pakistan. In the worst case scenario from Pakistan’s point of view, an open border with free movement of goods and people across the LoC would be something that Pakistan can live with until it is in a position to create conditions in which Kashmir falls into its lap like a ripe apple.

For India the problem is more serious because it’s a status quo power. India claims the whole state of Jammu and Kashmir as its inalienable part, but lacks the military wherewithal to enforce a solution of its liking. Learning to live with the status quo is however also not something that India would be comfortable with. For one, this would imply not having a settled border with Pakistan. The LoC as an international border is not a solution because neither India, nor Pakistan nor for that matter the disaffected Kashmiris would agree on. Even an innovative solution like some sort of joint sovereignty or control over Jammu and Kashmir is not something that any government in India can ever agree, at least not in the foreseeable future. This means that the worst case Pakistani scenario becomes the best case Indian scenario. But even on this India would not enjoy a comfort level that it can be happy about. More importantly, while the settlement in Kashmir appears to be moving in exactly this direction – i.e. soft borders with free movement ultimately making borders irrelevant (a formulation General Musharraf has voiced a number of times) – there are some doubts on whether General Musharraf will be able to sell this formula back home.

The desire for peace and normalization in Pakistan certainly does not mean that the people have forgotten all about the ‘core issue’ of Kashmir. No doubt, the tone and tenor that accompanies any discussion on Kashmir has undergone a dramatic shift and is less self-righteous, less accusatory and no longer absolute than it was in the past. But the issue persists. And unless some sort of a face saving formula is worked out, Pakistani public opinion is certainly not going to roll over and play dead on the issue of Kashmir out of love for a rediscovered India.

It is also important not to over-estimate the importance of the ‘peoples movement’ in favor of peace. As of now, this ‘peoples movement’ exists at the sufferance of the Pakistani establishment and can be snuffed out in minutes. It suits the Pakistani establishment to have such a movement because it helps take the wind out of the inveterate India-bashers who are opposed to any dialogue or peace with India. But if tomorrow, the Pakistani establishment thinks that it might as well switch back to the old paradigm of hostility towards India, it will lean in favor of the traditional India-bashers and against the ‘peoples movement’. Of course, a deepening engagement at the peoples level between the two countries could lead to a situation in which the Pakistani establishment will find it difficult to quell the pro-peace sentiment. But such a situation is not likely to come about in the near future and policy cannot be based on such an uncertain eventuality. In any case, one can ignore the right-wing anti-India lobby inside Pakistan at one’s own peril. For the moment, they seem to have been reduced to helplessly fulminating against the peace process. What is more, there are divisions even within the right-wing lobby – for instance, amongst the traditional flag-bearers of the anti India stance – the Nazria-i-Pakistan (ideology of Pakistan) movement – there are those who are sticking to the old line, and there are those who are in favor of exploring the possibility of a negotiated settlement with India.

A big problem as regards the peace process is that it has still not been ‘marketed’ well. This is to say that while there are a whole lot of people from all walks of life who are expressing themselves in favor of the peace process, there is as of now no real stake-holders as far as the process is concerned. One says this in the sense that the process still lacks the institutional backing it needs to make it really ‘irreversible’. The conviction and commitment of the people who are today speaking in favor of peace is still not above question. As things stand the process is ‘personality driven’ and not ‘institution driven’. There are only a handful of people in both countries – perhaps not more than 5 to 10 on each side – who know what is really happening behind the scenes and the various roadmaps under consideration. Neither the bureaucracy nor the politicians have any real stake in the process as they have not been taken in confidence or consulted to any significant extent in order to evolve a consensus or at least prepare them for some kind of a deal. All that has been happening is that before and after every major meeting some politicians and media-persons are assured that there will be no compromise on the “principles” of the Kashmir movement. Therefore everyone except those in the loop are left speculating as to what the parameters of an eventual deal will be. And the speculation is generally within the traditional paradigm of what constitutes an acceptable solution to Kashmir. There are very few people outside the inner-most circle of decision-making but with some amount of access to the inner-circles, who are able to sense that there is perhaps a shift in the paradigm itself. This much becomes clear when one engages in conversations with Pakistani interlocutors. The ones who are just outside the loop of decision-making appear to be far more ‘visionary’ about the direction in which the process will ultimately go than those who are completely out of the loop and yet are important in their own right. The former explore the possibility radically different and innovative solutions, while the latter stick to the old formulae. This is a major disconnect in the thinking of influential sections of the Pakistani establishment which could ultimately even sound the death-knell of the peace process.

But bridging this disconnect constitutes a great dilemma: the stage has perhaps still not been reached to publicly discuss all the various options under consideration. There is a lot to be said in favor of quiet, back-channel diplomacy that tries to establish a roadmap acceptable to both India and Pakistan before it is put before the public. On the other hand, diplomacy behind closed doors fuels speculation and misinformation about what is actually under consideration. A popular leadership can manage this gap through deft political maneuvering, but a military regime which is deeply unpopular will find it that much more difficult to manage the politics of the peace process, especially when there is a real possibility that the political opposition may use the peace process as a handle against the military regime.

While apart from the Jamaat Islami, none of the other political parties are averse to the peace process, and in fact are supportive of it, yet there is a danger that the peace process may become a victim of the political struggle between the military regime and the political opposition. Public anger and discontent against the regime, if channelised by the opposition into street protests could very easily spill over against India. And as happens ever so often in subcontinental politics any collapse of the regime due to a possible political agitation might be attributed, wrongly and with ulterior motive (by right-wing groups and lobbies) to the peace moves with India. If this happens then the new regime will perforce slip back into the old paradigm if for no other reason then for self-preservation. And the army rather than becoming a harbinger of peace and change will become the flag bearer of the old policy of hostility and suspicion.

How easily the peace process could dovetail with the general public discontent with the current ruling dispensation became clear after a conversation with a senior MMA leader who belongs to the JUI, a party that is very keen on normalizing relations with India. For the JUI Afghanistan is more important than Kashmir. The jihad in Kashmir poses a political challenge to the JUI’s political leadership. Had people like Masood Azhar and Fazlur Rehman Khalil not been leading the jihad in Kashmir, they would have been workers in JUI. The gain of the jihad has been the loss of the JUI in terms of cadre and workers and indeed political support. The JUI however has a political problem in that politically it simply cannot detach itself completely from the Kashmir issue, even though it might like to do this. They would be more than happy if the issue sorted itself out, and are hardly keen on adopting any sort of a hard line position on Kashmir. But this doesn’t mean that the JUI will not make pro-forma statements on Kashmir, which might appear to be obstructions in the path of the peace process.

The JUI leadership has a problem in being more forthright on Kashmir because its other major partner within the MMA, the Jamaat Islami, is very hawkish on Kashmir. As a result, the JUI has adopted a strategy of killing two birds with one stone. They criticize the government on its Kashmir policy so that not only can they keep the JI satisfied but also use the criticism as a handle against the government. But internally, the JUI leaders say that it is better for the peace process if the MMA stays united because this way they can keep a check on the JI and temper them. The JUI also admit that their criticism of the peace process is political, and aimed not so much against India as against the current regime. The JUI and indeed the MMA is approaching the issue is designed to undermine the Musharraf regime, rather than the peace process. According to the JUI the past record of the military rulers has been terrible when it comes to protecting national interest and they give the example of Ayub Khan’s signing of the Indus Waters treaty, Yahya Khan’s blunders in East Pakistan, Ziaul Haque’s loss of Siachen and juxtapose these to wonder what historical blunder will Musharraf make now. As far as the JUI is concerned they want in on the peace process in order to ensure that decisions regarding the peace process are taken after due deliberation and consultation with the elected representatives of the people, in other words the parliament. This is a way to sow doubts about Musharraf’s competence in dealing with India as well increase the power of the parliament and by extension the MMA. The other line of attack is related. MMA is asking so far what has Musharraf to show for his flexibility with India which has not yielded an inch let alone on Kashmir but also on issues like Siachen, Sir Creek and Baglihar.

This is the line of attack that other political parties too will take as and when they start an agitation against the Musharraf regime. For parties like the Jamaat Islami, going soft on easy presents an ideological problem, not very different from the one that confronted the BJP after Mr LK Advani’s trip to Pakistan. A senior Jamaat leader confessed that the party has taken a rabidly anti-India position for so long that despite the fact that this is no longer a politically popular slogan, the party finds it difficult to take a different line, especially since the core constituency and cadre of the party could rebel against any such move. But he was candid enough to say that things are very different when a party is in opposition and gave the example of the BJP to buttress his point.

The other major political parties too will not be averse to using the peace process to pull the regime down. This, despite the fact that they will be happy if Musharraf reaches a settlement with India on Kashmir. In anything they would prefer Musharraf reaches a settlement before he is ousted because this way they can always blame the settlement on him and the army and yet continue to adhere to this settlement and not challenge it. This is again a strategy to kill two birds with one stone: a settlement with India will end the influence of the army on the politics of the country because not only will it end the influence arrogated by the army as the defender of the ideological and territorial frontiers of the country but also because the politicians can use the settlement to bring down the regime. But it could easily go the other way and the like mentioned earlier the situation could force the new regime to go back on the understanding reached with India, especially since such an understanding would be more in the nature of agreements rather than a treaty agreement delineating permanent borders.                 The possibility of such a reversal would increase if the military rank and file is unhappy with the peace deal reached between India and Pakistan.

Apart from the issue of Kashmir, there could be other factors that could become a political liability for the regime in Pakistan and could impinge on the peace process. Among these the most serious is the water issue and the construction of dams like Baglihar and Kishen Ganga. While the issue of Baglihar is before a neutral expert, any decision that goes against Pakistan will be used by the opposition to attack the government and accuse it of surrendering Pakistan’s water to India and making the country suffer from water shortage. This would be a hugely emotional issue that would strike a chord across the country and help in mobilize the public against the regime. In such an event the regime will find it difficult to move forward on the peace process.

Apart from water, the economic situation in the country will also be a critical factor in the peace process. There are signs of a recovery in the economy, though it is still not out of the woods. But any major improvement in the economy coupled with Pakistan’s rehabilitation in the international community could once again stiffen the back of the establishment on reaching a compromise with India on the issue of Kashmir, especially if the impression that India is not serious about the process and is playing for time and trying to sideline the ‘core issue’ of Kashmir gains ground. As it is, there is a feeling inside Pakistan that India is being deliberately cussed in resolving the peripheral issues like Siachen and Sir Creek and complicating these issues so that it can continue to avoid talking on Kashmir. What is more, Pakistan believes that the Indian reliance on CBM’s is increasingly being seen as a substitute for substantial progress on the issue of Kashmir, which is not acceptable to Pakistan. It is a political compulsion for Musharraf to show something substantial and tangible to his people, especially the right-wing, in order to keep their faith alive in him and the peace process. If the impression gains ground, as it seems to be, that India is not willing to compromise on its traditional stance then Musharraf for reasons of self-preservation will have to step back from the current process.

Finally, there is the issue of the jihadis. The Pakistani state’s ability or inability to demobilize and dismantle the jihadi infrastructure will be critical to the peace process. But this is not going to be an easy task and could create serious law and order problems inside Pakistan. As Musharraf himself said recently: there was a serious danger of the ship of state capsizing if he had launched a Stalinist purge against the jihadis in 2002 when he made his celebrated January 12th speech. He went on to say that he is now far more confident in taking on the jihadis. But so far no real or meaningful action appears to have been taken except asking the jihadis to lie low. It appears that Musharraf doesn’t want to precipitate matters by carrying out the kind of purge required to eliminate the jihadi culture from the country and would rather adopt a slow and steady policy of isolating them and letting the jihadi culture peter away against the onslaught of a more popular and relaxed traditional culture of Pakistan. But this is a strategy fraught with danger because the Jihadis are not going to roll over and disappear. They are still active, recruiting people, collecting funds and engaging in activities and propaganda that is attracting people towards them. What is more, they are becoming politically active and aligning themselves with mainstream political forces like PPP, PML (Nawaz) and the MMA in forging a common front to challenge the government.


In the face of the internal challenges that confront the peace process in Pakistan, it would be somewhat premature to call the process ‘irreversible’. The peace process remains unstable and therefore reversible for the reasons outlined above and some others which are beyond the scope of this paper. India will need to keep a close eye on political developments inside Pakistan and at every stage make a determination of how these could impact on the peace process. This is necessary not only if India wants to take the process to its logical conclusion (provided India knows what this is!) but also in order to take steps that help the other side keep faith in the process and nudge it along the path of peace. If India is indeed serious about normalizing relations with Pakistan then it is important for Indian policy makers to appreciate the political compulsions of their Pakistani interlocutors and then forge policy instruments that lend power to the elbow of the other side. Without such an approach, it will be only a matter of time before the peace process suffers a major setback, from which it will be difficult to extricate it.



Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

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