Despite being the immediate neighbour, India has chosen to follow a no-reaction policy towards the ongoing turmoil in Pakistan
India has maintained complete silence over the ongoing political turmoil in Pakistan. Being a dominant power in the Indian subcontinent and the immediate neighbour, New Delhi could have chosen to issue a statement on the emerging situation in Pakistan. However, India is following its no-reaction policy approach here, which has a past precedent. Moreover, since the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s “special status” in August 2019, India has shown a greater degree of indifference towards Pakistan and is now broadly interested in maintaining limited contact with Islamabad. Amidst rising instability in Pakistan, India may consider ways to allay its concerns, without sounding interventionist, on sensitive issues like cross-border terrorism, peace on the border, and the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.
The logic behind no-reaction approach
There are four primary reasons for India’s silence on the situation in Pakistan. First, an official reaction from New Delhi would allow Pakistan’s military establishment and the political leadership to exploit the narrative of “external intervention” from its “rival” [India] to hide their own wrongdoings. Second, India has refrained from responding to domestic political crises in Pakistan unless they involved military coups or killings of prominent political figures. Third, the current crisis in Pakistan may not pose any immediate security threats to India. The Pakistan Army is simply flexing its muscles to systematically dismantle the ‘Imran Khan project,’ which they created some years back and is now working on arranging a new political alternative for the next general elections. Four, policymakers in New Delhi do not foresee any major change in Islamabad’s behaviour towards India, which continues to remain hostile.
Since the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s “special status” in August 2019, India has shown a greater degree of indifference towards Pakistan and is now broadly interested in maintaining limited contact with Islamabad.
It is worth noting that while India typically avoids commenting on Pakistan’s internal political affairs, unless provoked, Pakistani leaders and the Army are consistent in propagating anti-India sentiments and commenting on India’s domestic issues. For instance, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, Foreign Minister of Pakistan, made extremely “uncivilised” remarks on Prime Minister Narendra Modi by calling him the “butcher of Gujarat” at the United Nations Security Council meeting in December last year and tried to fan religious tensions in India. Similarly, Imran Khan, his ministers and advisors regularly targeted the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Modi, and tried to rile up communal sentiments in India, especially after the5 August decision on Kashmir.
Throughout Pakistan’s history, elected leaders in Islamabad have been ineffective in improving relations between India and Pakistan. Matters pertaining to foreign and security policies in Pakistan are predominantly handled by the powerful military establishment. The civilian leadership in Pakistan cannot unilaterally take a decision on India. Following Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “surprise” visit to Pakistan in December 2015, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif faced immense pressure from the “powerful” quarters in the country. Within a week of Modi’s visit, Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) terrorists attacked the Pathankot air force base on 2 January 2016, jeopardising efforts for a thaw in the bilateral relationship. It was reportedly the Army’s signalling to Sharif to toe the line on India.
Consequently, there seems to be a consensus in New Delhi that it is largely inconsequential which political party or alliance is in power in Islamabad. Ultimately, the Army takes the final call on India. For example, former Army Chief of Pakistan, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, reportedly played the central role in the (re)implementation of the 2003 ceasefire understandings along the Line of Control (LoC) and all other sectors after engaging in backchannel talks with India. Notably, both countries have largely adhered to the ceasefire since February 2021, with a few isolated incidents.
The Pakistan Army is simply flexing its muscles to systematically dismantle the ‘Imran Khan project,’ which they created some years back and is now working on arranging a new political alternative for the next general elections.
In the initial six months of his tenure as Pakistan’s Army Chief, General Syed Asim Munir has taken a hardline stance on India. According to India’s former High Commissioner to Pakistan, Ambassador Satinder Lambah, “History shows that Pakistan army chiefs think of improving relations with India only after stabilizing themselves.” After dismantling Imran Khan’s party and punishing reported dissenters within the Army, Munir will likely become more powerful and stable in his job. This could have possible bearings on Pakistan’s policy on India.
The Narendra Modi government’s policy on Pakistan is clear that “terror and talks cannot coexist together.” It has been over three years since the revocation of J&K’s special status, but Islamabad refuses to acknowledge the reality and move forward. In an interview with a United Arab Emirates-based media channel in January, Prime Minister of Pakistan, Shehbaz Sharif, claimed that “negotiations are not possible without India revoking this step (August 2019 decision).” At the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Foreign Ministers’ meeting in May, Pakistan’s FM Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari said, “Unless India reviews the action it took on August 5, 2019 (abrogation of Article 370), Pakistan is not in a position to engage bilaterally with India.”
Contrary to Bhutto-Zardari’s statement, Pakistan cannot dictate terms for negotiations with India, that too on the Kashmir issue. The country is currently facing multiple crises ranging from a dwindling economy to growing geopolitical irrelevance. Islamabad is staring at a looming threat of financial default, with the year-on-year inflation hovering around 38 percent and fast-depleting forex reserves, while talks for an International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout remain uncertain. Interestingly, India agreed to help Pakistan to resume cross-border trade on at least two occasions in the past three years: April 2021 and August 2022. However, on both occasions, Islamabad jeopardised its own initiatives by politicising the matter and bringing up the Kashmir issue.
The Pakistani military is heavily engaged in counterterrorism operations on its western borders with Afghanistan against the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other terror outfits.
Prior to suspending trade with India following New Delhi’s decision to revoke J&K’s special status, India had reportedly exported goods worth US$ 52 million (approximately INR 370 crore) to Pakistan in August 2019. In contrast, Pakistan’s monthly exports to India amounted to a little over US$ 2.5 million (around INR 18 crore). Allowing cross-border trade would have been more useful to Pakistan, especially considering the dire economic conditions and acute food shortages it currently faces.
Furthermore, the Pakistani military is heavily engaged in counterterrorism operations on its western borders with Afghanistan against the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other terror outfits. In the month of May, the TTP claimed responsibility for 76 attacks, the majority of which took place in the tribal agencies of the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and targeted the security forces of Pakistan. Moreover, border security forces from Pakistan and Afghanistan, governed by the Taliban, have indulged in several violent skirmishes since August 2021, exacerbating tensions between the two neighbours. Given these circumstances, the Pakistani military may refrain from stirring up tensions on the eastern front with India, for which it would not even receive support from the international community.
Following the withdrawal of U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops and the Taliban’s return to Afghanistan in August 2021, Pakistan has increasingly lost relevance on the international stage. Struggling with a tanking economy, record levels of inflation rates, and persisting political instability, Pakistan is visibly imploding without any “external” intervention. After a brutal crackdown on Imran Khan’s party through arbitrary detentions and torture of PTI supporters, the Pakistan Army has once again demonstrated that it rules the country and not “selected” civilian governments. Many analysts describe the current political arrangement in Pakistan as a “quasi-military dictatorship” with a token civilian government of the multi-party Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) alliance.
With New Delhi’s increased focus on China and the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), India is possibly looking at a status quo situation—peace on the border and no formal talks—with Pakistan, unless Gen Munir decides otherwise and increases tensions with India to further consolidate the Army’s control in Pakistan. Given India’s heightened attention on the security situation at the Line of Actual Control (LAC), it would be a pragmatic decision to keep the western front ‘cold’ and avoid the “two-front” security dilemma. However, this does not imply that India will not respond or show complicity to Pakistani provocations or attempts to disturb peace in Jammu and Kashmir through sponsored terror attacks.
Lieutenant General (retired) Khalid Kidwai, advisor to Pakistan’s National Command Authority, recently hinted that Pakistan is developing weapons capabilities ranging from 0 m to 2,750 kms, raising doubts regarding the intent of the country’s nuclear programme.
India should carefully assess the implications for the region as a fallout of the ongoing political crisis in Pakistan. The economic, political, and security instability is rising significantly in India’s immediate neighbourhood. Moreover, alleged PTI-led attacks on critical military installations, including the GHQ, and reports of internal dissents with the military establishment may question the safety and security of the nuclear assets in Pakistan. Moreover, Lieutenant General (retired) Khalid Kidwai, advisor to Pakistan’s National Command Authority, recently hinted that Pakistan is developing weapons capabilities ranging from 0 m to 2,750 kms, raising doubts regarding the intent of the country’s nuclear programme.
Lastly, to further strengthen its control within the country, the Pakistan Army could drag India into its internal crisis to establish an “external” angle. Recent statements from Pakistani government officials and military leaders suggest that Islamabad may continue to harbour hostility towards India. While the Indian government’s silence on the crisis in Pakistan is both expected and logical, the above concerns should be expressed in a discreet yet vocal manner.
Sarral Sharma is a Doctoral Candidate at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).
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