File photo of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in talks with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. Photo: MEA India

The resounding re-election victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has kindled speculation of a revival of dialogue with Pakistan. Pakistani PM Imran Khan telephoned to congratulate Modi on his victory. Modi thanked Khan, stressing that creating trust and an environment free of violence and terrorism were essential for fostering cooperation for peace, progress and prosperity in the region.

During the elections, Khan had mentioned that the chance of achieving peace with India was the likeliest under Modi. According to him, Modi had the mandate to make bold decisions, and therefore, endorsed him to be the prime minister for a second term.

There was a lot of over-enthusiastic reporting in the Indian print and electronic media that Khan was “snubbed” by not being invited for Modi’s swearing-in ceremony on May 30. In fact, in May 2014, when Modi took the oath as prime minister for the first time, he had invited Pakistan’s prime minister at the time, Nawaz Sharif, and renewed hope about establishing a cordial relationship. However, a series of terror attacks in Kashmir and Afghanistan belied that hope. But this time around Modi’s invite was specifically for the heads of state of BIMSTEC, an association of South and Southeast Asian countries. Naturally, as Pakistan is not a member of that group, it did not get an invite. Therefore, it is safe to assume that it was not a “snub” as reported.

In a manner of speaking, talks between India and Pakistan have never ceased. For instance, delegation-level talks between the two nations were scheduled for April. They were deferred because of Sikh separatists being backed by Pakistan for inclusion in the talks after India successfully quelled a Pakistan-sponsored terrorist movement in Punjab in the early 1990s. The delegation-level talks really don’t amount to a comprehensive bilateral dialogue, which Imran Khan is keen on, but they amount to a continued South Asian engagement.

Hope at the SCO

There has been speculation that Modi and Khan will meet this Thursday and Friday in Bishkek on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting. However, a news report quoting official sources has clarified that at best it may just be a passing meeting in an informal setting, whereas Modi will be holding bilateral talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Zhang Hanhui has asked India not to target Pakistan during the SCO meet. “Security and development are two major issues of focus for the SCO. The establishment of the SCO is not to target any certain country but the summit of this level will certainly pay attention to major international relation and regional issues,” he said.

Khan is rooting for an India-Pakistan bilateral dialogue for multiple reasons. He was propped up as the prime-ministerial candidate with overt and covert support from the Pakistani military. However, his relations with the army are souring over the possibility of the Financial Action Task Force placing Pakistan on its money-laundering blacklist in October. In April, officials of the Asia-Pacific Group, an affiliate of the FATF, expressed serious reservations over insufficient physical actions on the ground against proscribed organizations to block flows of funds and activities.

Pakistan’s financial woes persist, with its foreign-exchange reserves plunging by US$788 million to stand at $8.05 billion. The International Monetary Fund has granted another $6 billion loan to Pakistan albeit with stipulations. In addition, Saudi Arabia has deferred a Pakistani payback for oil worth $9.6 billion. Even adding loans granted by China and the United Arab Emirates, this would hardly suffice. The IMF bailout itself nixes Khan’s promises to improve education and health care and create a welfare state.

Pakistan’s internal strife

A bigger problem than Pakistan’s financial woes is its deteriorating internal security situation. The continuing assaults on locals in Balochistan and the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) are causing a severe backlash even as Pakistan’s military confesses to “enforced disappearances.” Meanwhile Major-General Asif Ghafoor, the director general of Inter-Services Public Relations, justifies these by saying, that “everything is fair in love and war.”

The attack on the Pearl Continental Hotel in Gwadar city on May 12 by the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) was played down but a number of Chinese nationals and Pakistani military personnel are believed to have died. As a result, Pakistan announced the raising of another division to guard the China-Pacific Economic Corridor, in addition to one division already deployed. Significantly, the BLA had attacked the Chinese Consulate in Karachi on November 23 last year, which was the 12th attack on Chinese interests in Pakistan during 2018.

Concurrent to the growing violence in Balochistan, the recent army firing on Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) activists demanding fundamental rights for Pashtuns on May 26, killing three, injuring dozens and arresting Member of the National Assembly Ali Wazir, was a recipe for added unrest. There is speculation that if the situation is mishandled by the army, it could even lead to another split of Pakistan, akin to what happened to East Pakistan after the 1971 war with India.

Pakistan’s resolve to curb terrorism remains highly suspect. Of the four concentration camps run in Balochistan, one in Awaran in the south of the province also doubles as a training camp for Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a militant organization. Concurrent to the Pakistan Army chief proposing the Kartarpur Corridor last year with India, Pakistan permitted the separatist movement Sikhs For Justice (SFJ) to open an office in Karachi.

Pakistan’s claims that it is moving to ban terrorist groups operating from its soil are no longer taken as credible across the globe. The freedom enjoyed by UN-designated “international terrorists” such as Hafiz Sayeed and Maulana Masood Azhar has eroded Pakistan’s credibility considerably.

Those banned continue to have a free run. Pakistan admits that Jamat-ud-Dawa and the Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation, headed by Islamist cleric Sayeed, are no longer banned after the expiration of a presidential ordinance that blacklisted them under a UN resolution. Why the presidential order could not be extended has never been explained. Farzana Shaikh, author of the book Making Sense of Pakistan, recently stated that with the US and China not helping Pakistan with its debt repayment, Imran Khan’s visit to and interaction with Saudi Arabia resulted in it lifting the ban on Ahl-e-Hadith groups like LeT and Jaish-e-Muhammad that receive support from Saudi Arabia.

It is generally accepted that it is the military that virtually runs Pakistan, and not the civilian elected governments. The irony is that as the US pins its hopes on Pakistani support to rope in the Taliban for Afghan reconciliation, the Pentagon sees the Pakistan-based LeT as one of the greatest threats to its troops and its allied forces in Afghanistan.

Pakistan draws solace from its strategic importance to the US and China and probably sees for itself a role in the rising US-Iran tensions, together with the Taliban. But the changing dynamics of the region may not allow its policy of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds to continue, given that it has allowed itself to be in the crosshairs of a geopolitical rivalry. As for the India-Pakistan bilateral dialogue, Islamabad’s charade of curbing terror stands exposed by its failure to shut down anti-India terrorist camps, imprison perpetrators of terror attacks in India, prosecute them or hand them over to India.

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