As Pakistan’s poly-crisis gets severe, the country turns towards India. India finds itself a unique opportunity, which can fit into the larger vision for its place in the world, and its current initiatives in the South-Asian region. In this editorial, we trace such an opportunity, see the various considerations involved, understand what are roadblocks – and finally connect it to India’s vision to be the ‘Voice of the Global South’.
Table of Contents
Pakistan’s Crisis Continues to Grow
The situation in Pakistan continues to embolden, as multiple crises weaken the very foundations of the nation.
On the security front, Pakistan is having to deal with the Baloch insurgency, who are propagating terrorism to fulfill its secessionist aims. To add to that, religious motivated extremism is coming back as a Frankenstein monster to haunt Pakistan.
Politically, there is an unending battle between the PTI and other political parties. The bureaucracy is drowning in corruption scandals and most state organs rendered inefficient.
To add to that, the leviathan power structure in Pakistan, wielded by conflicting units of military establishment, politicians, judiciary, media, the elite, religious heads as well as anarchic units of power such as terrorists – all contribute to the crisis that the country finds itself in.
When it rains, it pours – and it poured too hard last year, adding catastrophic floods to the laundry list of crises for Pakistan. The floods submerged one-third of Pakistan, and caused a much larger climate disaster for the nation.
Ultimately, and most importantly Pakistan’s economy is crumbling. Its FOREX reserves have almost exhausted, its trade infrastructure missing – and the country is facing a resource crisis of such an intensity that many cities suffered a full scale power outage earlier this week.
Is There An Opportunity For India?
The situation in Pakistan is opening up some unique opportunities for India – which are coming in the form of surprising statements and relaxations of stances. India is also responding with diplomatic maneuvers, and stronger handling of bilateral issues – such as sending a notice yesterday seeking modifications of the Indus Water Treaty.
PM Shehbaz Sharif’s Statement
As the crisis grows in hostility, Islamabad is making unprecedented moves. Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif expressed interest in “serious and sincere talks” with India last week, in order to address “burning issues”.
The Prime Minister added that his country has learnt its lessons from three wars with India. A statement such as this, that too from the Head of State nonetheless, marks a divergence in the sour bilateral ties between India & Pakistan.
The statement especially contrasts with a recent comment made by the Pakistan Foreign Minister where he called the Indian Prime Minister as the “butcher of Gujarat”, in response to criticism levied against Pakistan.
Earlier, there has been an upward trend of mutual mistrust, deepened by opposing stances over various issues surrounding Kashmir – the incident at Pulwama, Article 370 & other security concerns. Some experts suggest that the two neighboring countries were almost at the cusp of nuclear exchange when tensions rose after Pulwama.
It appears that the crisis has gone over the water-line in Pakistan’s political dam. Sharif’s recent statement potentially reflects a shift in Islamabad, where they now seek wisdom in making peace with India.
Sharif reached out to New Delhi with a condition however. For talks to begin, India has to revoke Article 370 in Jammu & Kashmir. Such a suggestion however, makes India immediately disinterested and irked.
What should India be considering before making a decision?
While Sharif’s hopes of future talks with India come up with a usual Kashmir rider, it still reflects Pakistan’s desperation for Indian cooperation.
Pakistan needs a bail-out, and Indian involvement in the South Asian region in similar debt restructuring, investment and infrastructural projects makes up their obvious logic for appeal.
The country also requires less tensions on its borders. As Pakistan’s terror chickens come to roost through its Western border, its border with India becomes significantly more important for it – as it finds itself politically, financially and strategically drained to address security threats.
India needs to realize the leverage it holds in the present moment. The Kashmir rider is a usual tool in the Pakistani policy box whenever talks with India are held, or expectations of the same emerge. As elections approach in Pakistan, the higher-ups in Islamabad need to integrate such riders to avoid loss of face towards its public.
New Delhi could turn it around, and offer its support in the form of a much larger cooperative strategy to finally address and settle the Kashmir dispute, and bring about the decades awaited period of peace between the two countries.
Elections are coming up for India as well, and dealing with a Pakistani regime that has been linked to hosting & supporting anti-India terrorist groups, can appear counterintuitive in New Delhi as well.
However, New Delhi has to operate, and publicly locate its moves on the horrifying prospect of Pakistan becoming a security nightmare, if its nuclear capability gets taken over by Islamic extremists as the incumbent establishment folds in the harsh winds of the crisis.
In light of recent climate concerns, the issue of the Indus-Water Treaty (IWT) has also come into light. The river-sharing dispute between the two nations is one of the usual clashing points in multilateral forums. As the river flow becomes unpredictable, dependable streams dry up, terror springs up as a result of the ‘water war’ and China sponsored dams drowns Pakistan further into debt – India can put to advantage its recently gained leverage to negotiate a new agreement.
As an added advantage, India will tend to gain strategically in the context of tensions with China. Pakistan has always remained a key player in China’s game against India – but with the crippling debt injected into it due the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Pakistan’s red-star tinted glasses seem to be coming off.
The SCO Meeting Invite
India is set to host a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in May. India, which is chairing the regional grouping this year, hopes to bring together the foreign ministers of all the Eurasian member states – including China & Pakistan.
Usually, multilateral forums are the only place where India & Pakistan engage. With shifting winds in Islamabad, India’s SCO meet invite to Pakistan Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto comes with expectations to gain further grounds multilaterally, so that they can set the stage to finally facilitate bilateral cooperation.
Whether or not the Pakistan Foreign Minister will choose to attend the meeting is being anticipated cautiously in New Delhi policy circles – especially as there is an opportunity for a thaw between the two countries in light of the recent statement by PM Sharif.
As the Indian Express writes, currently India is wondering whether tactful handling of the current situation will lead to another historic ‘Musharraf-Vajpayee handshake’ moment for India-Pakistan relations at the SCO meeting, or whether it remains a mere ‘exchange of pleasantries’, with no actionable outcome.
Should India temper its bilateral expectations?
Currently, the SCO meeting appears to be the only forum where India & Pakistan can find an opportunity to engage on the side lines. Bilaterally, India & Pakistan still have not made much headway.
In the multilateral meeting of the Eurasian bloc, keeping expectations of immense bilateral breakthroughs would be a disillusioned move.
To add to that, except Sharif’s statement – which itself came with a Kashmir clause – the rest of Islamabad seems even more frozen for India to find a toehold in. With the General Elections coming up in Pakistan, and India – both sides are averse to taking huge risks.
When asked whether the Pakistan Foreign Minister will attend the SCO meeting, the official spokesperson responded with the following –
“A decision…will be taken after deliberation.”
Additionally, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Hina Khar also gave a view of the log jammed bilateral process, as she gave her statement to the Senate,
“No back channel diplomacy (between India & Pakistan) is currently underway.”
What should India’s move be?
Instead of projecting bilateral expectations – the recent ‘thawing’ should be seen as a signal for India to amp up its multilateral process. The SCO meet can break the communication log-jam, and even by establishing a resumption of dialogue – much strides can be achieved.
The added symbolism of the meet taking place in India, can lay out a roadmap for future cooperation.
If Pakistan is truly desperate for Indian cooperation, but is unwilling to appeal for it bilaterally – the SCO meet can be a great platform to kick-start the rusted and ‘moribund’ peace process, writes the Scroll.in.
India should respond positively and warmly if Pakistan chooses to send a delegation – and avoid the cold reception given to the Pakistani delegation in the Heart of Asia Conference a few years back.
The opportunities for India listed above remain the same – and projecting cooperation at any level will tend to give India an upper hand in the region.
What is India’s Larger Game Plan in South Asia?
As mentioned earlier, India has larger regional gains to gather from an improved relation with Pakistan. Jumping on the opportunity is not only to address the bilateral concerns – but to augment India’s current South Asian outreach mission.
Suhasini Haidar of The Hindu writes that 2024 is going to be a particularly interesting year for India as the President of the G20, and is already seeing a ‘newly powered push in the neighborhood.
Let us look at some instances of India’s recent neighborhood outreach –
India’s South Asian outreach in 2024
External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar visited Maldives last week to extend assistance towards a couple of infrastructural projects in the country where India has already committed over 2 Billion dollars – the most prominent of which is the Greater Male Connectivity Project.
The next spot on the EAM’s travel itinerary was to the island nation which recently got bailed out by IMF through Indian negotiation in the form of a 3.9 Billion Dollar package which includes credit lines, currency swaps and loan repayment relaxations.
Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra visited Bhutan and held talks with the incumbent monarch, discussing a greater bilateral development cooperation, India’s assistance on digital & educational infrastructure, among other things.
The Foreign Secretary is expected to visit Nepal in the upcoming days, in order to extend an invitation for the new Prime Minister Prachanda to visit New Delhi.
Bangladesh & Myanmar
All of India’s neighbors participated in an online “Voice of Global South” summit – except Pakistan & Afghanistan. The list of participants therefore included Bangladesh, and more notably Myanmar. PM Modi addressed 125 countries in a conversation about the vision of India’s upcoming G20 summit – and integrated India’s immediate neighborhood through it.
The above discussion on Pakistan circumnavigates to fit into a larger jigsaw game here. The invitation for Pakistan Foreign Minister Bhutto to attend the SCO meeting in May, was sent last week. If he does attend, he will become the first Foreign Minister from Islamabad to visit India in over a decade.
Why is India suddenly reaching out in the region?
There are various reasons behind India’s expedited neighborhood outreach which could only find parallels to how Indians rush to their neighbor’s aid at short notice.
The election cycle has ticked in, and many of India’s neighbors are awaiting their elections – including Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives & Pakistan. Majority of the incumbent establishments in these nations are pro-India, and hence New Delhi has to do its due diligence to shore up ties.
However, there has been a recent surge of anti-Indian sentiments in these nations, particularly fostered by the opposition powers. New Delhi is anticipating risks and trying to build better relationships and public image with the people of these nations – in case new governments are elected.
On a similar note of maintaining its image, experts believe that India’s recent South Asian outreach is an attempt to plaster over the cracks it built while domestically dealing with issues involving minorities. As most of India’s neighbors are Muslim majority nations, the incumbent government has to go an extra mile to reaffirm its neighbors of India’s secular and pluralistic commitments.
India’s foreign policy is also undergoing change, in light of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war and its economic implications, including the energy crisis, inflation and western sanctions. India is turning back to its policy of non-alignment and pledging to become a ‘voice for the global south’. This highlights the regionalism focus for New Delhi, where it is trying to strengthen ties with the countries in its neighborhood.
Much of India’s regional moves are also determined by China’s positioning. As China has slowed down in the post-COVID era, and only recently opened up – India finds for itself a short window to reclaim its place in the region and get an upper ground in its continuous challenge with China. As global perceptions of China changes, this fits into a larger Indian move to position itself as the ‘better’ choice in the region.
But the major reason behind India’s initiative, much like most other projects this year – is its G20 Presidency. India’s position needs to be built on greater regional stability – and can be jeopardized if even one country in its neighborhood falls out. It turns out that after ascending to the presidency of the G20, India got entrusted with the responsibility to address a difficult South Asian ‘conundrum’.
How will India solve the ‘South Asian conundrum’?
Herbert Wulf, the Director of the Bonn International Center for Conversion, believes that 2024 ‘could be India’s year’. India’s influence has increased significantly in recent years, due to its phenomenal economic growth and its ambitions to be a global player.
India’s presidency of the G20 only adds further evidence to this claim. However, with such great expectation, comes anticipation of a growing crisis, and that crisis lies in its immediate neighborhood – South Asia.
India continues to gather support for a future UN Security Council permanent seat, and has to naturally address and mitigate its future problems, to ever succeed in that.
However, there are some problems that simply cannot be solved without achieving a wide South-Asian consensus. These include the issue of pollution, climate change, energy security, health security and resource scarcity – alongside a host of other security concerns such as cross-border illicit trade and terrorism.
As the world continues to polarize – the age of globalization appears to come to an end. On paper, gathering regional cooperation over these issues should be easier now, than it was earlier – as the world finds more and more of its moorings in regionalisations and platforms that are in their neighborhoods.
Regional trade currently constitutes half of global trade, and the growing cooperation in regional agreements such as NAFTA, MERCOSUR, EU, Gulf Cooperation Council, RCEP, etc further boost this trend.
South Asia on the other hand, sticks out as an outlier to this trend. While the SAARC still exists, its significance has perished over time.
However, if India needs to address its issue of energy insecurity – it has to reduce the regional dependence on global crude supplies. If it has to address the heightened insecurity in the region – Pakistan & Afghanistan needs to be engaged with.
While India had prioritized other regions and forums till now to gain international prominence – once it possesses the attention of the world, it has to strengthen its own neighborhood first.
When India was awaiting its Presidency of the G20, getting its house in order was the requirement. But now that it pledges to become a ‘voice of the global south’ – a somewhat messianic figure of sorts – it has to tidy up its neighborhood too. As charity begins at home, that should start with its North-western neighbor first.
Also Read : India Issues Notice Over Indus Water Treaty 1960