Despite flash in the pan initiatives like the May 2014 invitation to SAARC heads of government at its inauguration and the `out of the box’ Lahore visit in December 2015, the incumbent Indian government’s relations with Pakistan remain mired in a bitter stalemate. Both sides seem caught in a test of wills, promoting opposing visions of how relations can be normalised, and pursuing mutually exclusive, self-sufficient narratives on why talks between the two end in mutual recrimination instead of mutual understanding. For Pakistan, it is the resolution of the Kashmir dispute, whereas India accords higher priority to terrorism.
Ironically enough, during the 2013 election campaign in Pakistan, public opinion there did not think obsessively about India. When India approached elections in 2014, there were credible assessments about the possible victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) victory. Sections of the intellectual elite and media even projected that détente had a better chance of succeeding whenever strong leadership existed in both countries. However, an almost visceral dislike of the new Indian Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi persisted among hardliners as they expected a turn towards ultra-nationalism in India. A year down the line, even this grudging optimism had eroded. Escalated military confrontation along the Line of Control (LoC) and International Border (IB), provocative incidents like the attacks in Uri, Pathankot and now, the Kulbhushan Jadhav abduction, have confirmed worst fears that no silver linings can be found in a relationship so burdened by history.
Talks between Indian PM Narendra Modi and Pakistan's PM Nawaz Sharif - on the sidelines of the July 2015 Ufa summit - saw a much delayed resumption of the engagement process between the two countries. However, the way the Ufa resolution was played up, over-emphasising terrorism and underplaying Kashmir, it put the Pakistani side on the defensive. After Ufa, new ‘red lines’, suddenly delineated about when to meet with the All Parties’ Hurriyat Conference and what to do or not do with them, led to the cancellation of the foreign secretary-level talks that were slated to be held in Islamabad in August 2015. Also, terror incidents with an evident Pakistani hand, in Gurdaspur, Punjab, and in Udhampur, Jammu & Kashmir, saw a familiar pattern of tension being ratcheted up.
PM Modi’s surprise visit to Lahore in December 2015 signified a clever use of symbolism to generate impetus to the peace process. As the first visit by an Indian prime minister to Pakistan after 11 years, it was welcomed by major opposition parties and civil society in Pakistan. However, predictably enough, spoilers from across the border soon threw a spanner in the works. On 2 January 2016, a major militant attack was carried out on the Pathankot Air base in India by suspected Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) militants. Though a Pakistani Joint Investigation team (JIT), including officials from the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Military Intelligence was allowed to visit the site in March 2016, the promise to assist in investigations on the Pakistani side never materialised. In fact, a report in Pakistan Today, a pro-establishment newspaper, quoting a source within the JIT, even alleged that this was a 'false flag' incident, stage-managed to give Pakistan a bad name.
Pakistan’s bad name as a state sponsor of terror is globally acknowledged, especially after nine years of feet-dragging in the trial of the seven accused in Pakistan in the 26/11 Mumbai attacks case. Arch terrorist, Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi was granted bail. Trial Judges keep getting changed. As one of Pakistan’s most respected police officers, Tariq Khosa, who headed their Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), remarked in August 2015, "Pakistan has to deal with the Mumbai mayhem, planned and launched from its soil. This requires facing the truth and admitting mistakes."
Though Pakistan was forced on the defensive when Kashmir began to simmer again, an opening presented itself. The mention of Balochistan during PM Modi's Independence Day speech in August 2016 was seen as a menacing and malign challenge. Buoyed by new promises of Chinese support, the Pakistan Army probably did not want to let it go unanswered. Plans for Kulbhushan Jadhav’s abduction from Iran may have been set in motion. Earlier, a Karachi underworld criminal, Uzair Baloch had been arrested and taken into the Pakistan Army's custody, as part of the cleanup operations undertaken by Pakistan Rangers. Pakistan is now claiming Jadhav was mixed up in the Karachi terrorist violence as well.
Pakistan suffered a setback though, in the International Court of Justice's (ICJ) provisional relief judgment at The Hague in May 2017. Asserting jurisdiction under Article 36(1) of its statute, the ICJ stayed Kulbhushan Jadhav’s execution and ruled that 'spies' or 'terrorists' cannot be excluded from consular access under the Vienna Convention. This completely vindicated the Indian position.
Though Jadhav may not be immediately hanged, the Pakistan Army seems in no mood to react rationally to this verdict. Consular access is unlikely to be given. The Sajjan Jindal track-II initiative was seen in the Pakistani media as too surreptitious, a move not possessing the blessings of their military establishment. It would be unreasonable to expect the civilian leadership in Pakistan to construct any diplomatic or legal strategy where the Army is on a different page. Positions in Pakistan seem to be hardening, with the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly passing a resolution demanding Jadhav’s execution. Because of this case, relations may worsen before they get better.
Over the past three years, the incumbent government in India has tried various hard-line postures. This does not seem to have worked. An alternative approach for India would be to make talks with Pakistan 'periodic' or almost routine, without any expectation of outcomes. However, before that India must set its own house in Kashmir in order, quelling the unrest in South Kashmir.
After the ICJ verdict humiliation, albeit temporary, an assessment is needed, possibly through a new 'track-II' outreach to the appropriate quarters, on what would be the minimum terms of Indo-Pak engagement the Pakistan Army could live with. A way forward could then be sought through a mix of gradual, middle-of-the-road approaches, vis-à-vis long-pending or contentious bilateral issues, accommodating reasonable expectations on both sides, based on abiding national interests.
In the present ambience of unmitigated hostility, even small steps in this direction seem unlikely.