A Widening Gulf

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The most contentious relationship in all of South Asia, between India and Pakistan, is even today bound by its complicated history. Conflicting ideologies and domestic politics have fostered resentment between the two states. And the geopolitics of the region has sharpened existing differences overtime. The fact is both countries see the other as the enemy—and this has been so for the longest time. The Kashmir issue perpetually exists as background noise, often overwhelming dialogue on newer issues. The current state of affairs leaves little room for the two to have any real chance at meaningful normalization.

PM Modi taking power has certainly upped the strain in relations. His hard-line stance on Pakistan found kinship in Washington’s own policy in the region on: the political and economic growth of China, the Afghan conflict and the war on terrorism.

Washington sees India as a balancer against the rise of China and its alliance with Pakistan. However, this only works up to a point since the Afghan conflict cannot be tackled without the support of Pakistan, which can only come about in the context of friendly US-Pak relations.

Perhaps realizing this, the US ambassador to the UN proposed that the Trump administration can make efforts to de-escalate tensions between India and Pakistan. The offer followed President Trump’s conversation with PM Nawaz Sharif alluding to such a possibility.

India swiftly rejected any US role in resolving Indo-Pak issues, hours after the American Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley suggested so.

Pakistan is infused with an overwhelming level of confidence in its relation with China and the resulting China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), its geostrategic value, and tactical nuclear weapons capability which has been added to Pakistan’s military strength. The recent border closure was meant to hit India just as much as it did Afghanistan. Pakistan has demonstrated a new kind of assertiveness.

At the strategic level Pakistan is in the midst of an emerging geopolitical alignment in the region: China, Russia and Pakistan are slowly forming an alliance, to which Iran may also join. The implications of such an alliance are slowly becoming more obvious to New Delhi and Washington. Pakistan’s value in the alliance may only rise considering its stakes in the Afghanistan issue, its relevance to the Taliban and its growing ties with China.

On the jihadist front, Pakistan has been reluctant to act perhaps in order for it to not look like Pakistan has succumbed to Indian pressure. Indian policies are making it even harder for Pakistan to act against jihadists, who are only becoming more popular among right-wing elements with the rise in animosity between India and Pakistan.

On April 10, Pakistan’s Field General Court Martial sentenced Commander Kulbhushan Jadhav of the Indian Navy to death for his involvement in espionage and sabotage activities in the provinces of Karachi and Balochistan.

Pakistan has had a lengthy and complicated history with Indian spies.

A notable similarity among past cases of Indian spies, whether it was Ravindra Kaushik,  Kashmir Singh or Sarabjit Singh, is that in spite of being sentenced to death, all convicted spies had their sentences later commuted to life imprisonment—even when they were lower to mid-tier operatives.

Given the precedent already set by previous cases, one may consider the possibility that Kulbhushan Jadhav might not be executed.

At present, however, Jadhav is an important bargaining chip for Pakistan in dealing with India. Pakistan has a self-professed architect of a major terrorism operation in its custody and consequently the high moral ground in the bilateral relationship. The situation does go in Pakistan’s favor; India’s options are hence limited. In case Pakistan decides to hang Jadhav, India will risk seeming weak and not the regional power that it wants to be seen as. If Pakistan decides otherwise and doesn’t go through with the hanging, it can continue to use Jadhav as evidence to prove that India has indeed waged an undeclared war against Pakistan.

Either way, obstinate realities in the bilateral relationship show few signs of changing. Finding a diplomatic solution or any breakthroughs in that regard seems near impossible as long as basic positions of the two countries remain starkly different. It will be interesting to see whether Modi hits the pause button on his ‘no dialogue’ policy in order to allow India some room to maneuver on Jadhav’s sentence. Ultimately, bilateral dialogue between the two countries is the only way forward.

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