That India and Pakistan are talking of war yet again illustrates the competing truths about this relationship 71 years after Partition. Mutual enmity is strong, but there also appears to be a crowd-pleasingly choreographed complicity in all the tough talk.
Consider the latest row. India abruptly called off a meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, between its foreign minister Sushma Swaraj and her Pakistani counterpart Shah Mahmood Qureshi. Pakistan’s new prime minister Imran Khan tweeted his disappointment at the cancellation. Heated debate erupted over who was to blame and for what. Not only were India’s stated reasons for cancellation called into question, so were the words Mr Khan used in response.
The row covered the same old ground. India said its decision was made in response to the killing of its security personnel in the Indian-administered area of the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir − part of an ongoing insurgency that it claims is funded and armed by Pakistan.
That was when the combative rhetoric began. India’s army chief, Bipin Rawat, called for “stern action to avenge the barbarism that terrorists and the Pakistan army have been carrying out”, with the caveat that India must do so “without resorting to a similar kind of barbarism”. In return, the director general of Pakistani inter-services relations, major general Asif Ghafoor, said that his country is “a nuclear nation and we are ready for war, but in the interest of the people of Pakistan and the neighbours and the region we want to walk the path of peace”.
What does all of this mean? Not an actual war, thankfully, but more of the same posturing and animosity. On the face of it, this is a continuation of a phase of heightened tensions between India and Pakistan, starting in January 2016, when six armed militants attacked an Indian Air Force base in Pathankot, near the border with Pakistan. By the end of that year, both India and Pakistan expelled one diplomat each on charges of spying. Throughout this year and last, there has been an increase in cross-border firing along the Line of Control in Kashmir.
This month’s meeting of the two foreign ministers was meant to hit pause on this cycle of antagonism. Instead, there is a stalemate of sorts, albeit a strategic one. There is little sign that either India or Pakistan plans active large-scale hostilities. Both countries have been generally content to indulge in sabre-rattling histrionics. Both are conscious of the potential cost of full-blown war, considering that each is equipped with more than 100 nuclear warheads, along with the missiles to deliver them. In the India-Pakistan context, the real test of power is not the capacity to make war but to prevent it.
So what might happen next? Peace will not break out, but neither will war. Expect more bad blood by the weekend. Pakistan’s foreign minister will address the UN General Assembly on Saturday and will, no doubt, have much to say on the situation in Kashmir.
India, meanwhile, has already ratcheted up its rhetoric, with the dismissive suggestion that Pakistan is a “one-trick pony”, referring to the nation’s focus on Kashmir at the UN. But, at some point, this highly charged atmosphere will settle down. That is likely to happen after next year’s Indian general election, which is due by May at the latest. After that, as Pakistan’s information minister Fawad Chaudhry has said, there will be more of an appetite for efforts to build subcontinental peace because “regions prosper, countries don’t. India cannot prosper by weakening Pakistan.”
Mr Chaudhry’s prediction needs to be seen in context. Months before Pakistan’s July elections, the nation’s army reportedly made overtures to India seeking the resumption of peace talks. The goal was to open up bilateral trade and stimulate regional economic growth on the lines of the so-called Bajwa doctrine, named after Pakistan’s army chief, general Qamar Javed Bajwa. Last October, Mr Bajwa publicly linked Pakistan’s economy to south Asia’s security. “The region will sink or sail together,” he said, addressing a seminar in Karachi. “I want to convey to our neighbours to the East and to the West that our destinies are inextricably linked.”
When generals play economist, there are deeper truths to be gleaned. Pakistan is in straitened circumstances, the nation’s faltering economy forcing it into talks with the International Monetary Fund for a new $9 billion loan. An IMF team is due to arrive in Pakistan on Thursday. But there is more. Mr Bajwa is considered unusual for a top Pakistani military officer in stating twice in a six-month period, beginning in December 2017, that dialogue is the only way to solve conflict with India. Add to that Mr Bajwa’s previous personal interactions with his Indian counterpart, Mr Rawat − both men served together on a UN peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo several years ago − and there appear to be genuine opportunities to find common ground.
Ultimately, any change in the India-Pakistan relationship will come down to one thing: the mutual desire for prosperity, which is only possible with peace. The one thing stronger than all the armies in the world is an idea whose time has come.