Bilawal Bhutto’s Visit To India May Represent A New Beginning In Indo-Pakistan Relations

Bilawal Bhutto’s Visit To India May Represent A New Beginning In Indo-Pakistan Relations
Foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s upcoming visit to India will be the first by a high-ranking Pakistani official since Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit in 2014. Indo-Pakistan relations definitely need a thaw.

The Modi government’s hardline policy toward religious minorities in India, especially towards the nearly 200 million Muslims, has not endeared him to Pakistan. Both countries continue to be engaged in an expensive and dangerous arms race in both conventional and nuclear weapons that shows no signs of slowing down. The two neighbors hardly trade with each other, to the detriment of the wellbeing of their citizens, who number in the billions.

The history of the two neighbors is marked by three major wars and several minor skirmishes. Even when they are not at war, the relationship is marked with rancor and ill will. Politicians continue to hurl accusations at each other, conveniently blaming all their domestic problems on the other. Against that backdrop, this visit should be viewed as a welcome development.

Instead, it has aroused the ire of hardliners in Pakistan. In their view, no such visit should occur until the Kashmir issue is resolved. What has not been resolved in 75 years cannot be resolved by a single visit.

The only way to resolve it is to not bring it up prematurely at an inter-regional meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) - that forum is not the right place for discussing a long-standing bilateral issue. Some hardliners, having accepted the reality that Bilawal Bhutto is going to Goa despite their objections, are now demanding that he raise the Kashmir issue at the Goa meeting. What they forget is that Kashmir is not on the agenda. Raising it will be awkward, undiplomatic and ultimately fruitless.

China has very close ties with Pakistan, and it’s very possible that, behind the scenes, it’s encouraging Pakistan to mend its ties with India.

It’s best to leave it for another time and place. Everyone attending the meeting is totally aware of the bitterness between the two neighbors and would be happy to see them talking in the same room after such a long hiatus. Fighting terrorism and extremism and promoting inter-member trade are the top priorities of the SCO. It’s also important to realize that China, despite its differences with India on several border issues, is not shy of sending its defence minister to New Delhi, as happened in March.

China is the country where the SCO was launched in 2001. It grew out of the Shanghai Five which was launched in 1996. SCO now has eight members including Russia, China, India, Pakistan and four Central Asian Republics. Several other countries have varying relationships with SCO, including Afghanistan, Iran and now, Saudi Arabia.

On the global stage, China has emerged as the leading rival to the United States. While it is some ways behind militarily, it’s moving fast on the diplomatic front. Recently, it negotiated an unprecedented diplomatic opening between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran, two countries that have clashed repeatedly in the Middle East over the past few decades.

Yes, China and India had border skirmishes in 2020-21, but things have calmed down. Both countries have had the wisdom to institute bilateral mechanisms to resolve the dispute. China’s Defense Minister visited India in March.

China’s top priority is economic growth and development. That can only be achieved if there is peace in the SCO region. China has very close ties with Pakistan, and it’s very possible that, behind the scenes, it’s encouraging Pakistan to mend its ties with India.

The big question is how much of a difference will Bilawal Bhutto’s visit make toward improving Indo-Pakistani ties. Some have argued, quite eloquently I might add, that it could represent a breakthrough. I doubt it.

The primary reason is that the PDM led government has very little credibility at home. The economy is in free fall. Economic growth in the year ending June 2023 is expected to come in at 0.4% according to the World Bank. That translates into negative growth in per capita income. Inflation is rampant. The Rupee is now worth a third of a US cent.

It’s not just the IMF which is reluctant to lend money to Pakistan. Even its closest allies, China and Saudi Arabia, are reluctant to do so unless the government puts its house in order. For months now, the country has been teetering on the brink of default.

To make matters worse, the leadership of the current government lacks charisma. It has been trumped handsomely by Imran Khan, the former prime minister. He is riding the crest of a wave of popularity, despite the government’s attempts to isolate him. His popularity was very visible at the late night rally he conducted on March 25. To tens of millions of Pakistan, it does not matter that he failed to deliver in his first term. He continues to stir their imagination. And he continues to appear in the international media.

National elections are due to be held this year. If they are held this fall, Imran Khan’s party is expected to sweep them, just as it swept the bye-elections that were held several months ago. To prevent his return to power, the current government will do its best to delay the elections, but that will further decrease its credibility, not just in Pakistan, but throughout the globe.

Pakistan should accept the line of control as an international boundary and give up its claims on Indian-held Kashmir.

Everyone knows this, most of all India. It is unlikely that India will enter into serious, behind the scenes negotiations with Bilawal Bhutto. When it comes to Indo-Pakistan relations, not much is likely to happen at the SCO foreign ministers meeting at Goa. But Bilawal Bhutto’s visit may represent a new beginning for subsequent governments to build on.

The two countries have so much in common – they face the challenges posed by the climate crisis, poverty, illiteracy and terrorism. And they share in many ways the same history, the same culture, the same cuisine, the same sports and in many ways; millions across the borders even speak the same language.

Perhaps in the next five to ten years, Pakistan and India will find a way to overcome their differences and build on their commonalities.

As for Kashmir, the answer is obvious and well known, but the hardliners in Pakistan are reluctant to accept it. They keep wanting to raise it at every international forum. The UN has shown no interest in resolving Kashmir, nor the OIC. Even Pakistan’s closest friends don’t want to do much about it, since they value their relationship with India. By now, the hardliners should know there is no military solution to the conflict. Nor is the world interested in holding a plebiscite in Kashmir under the auspices of the UN. The prerequisite to a plebiscite -- that both sides withdraw their troops from Kashmir -- won’t happen.

Pakistan should accept the line of control as an international boundary and give up its claims on Indian-held Kashmir. The sooner it does that, the sooner it will make peace with India. Both countries will then reap the benefits of the peace that will follow.


Dr. Faruqui is a history buff and the author of Rethinking the National Security of Pakistan, Routledge Revivals, 2020. He tweets at @ahmadfaruqui