The dispute over Kashmir between India and Pakistan is as old as the state of Pakistan itself. And for nationalist rabble-rousers on both sides, it has been the gift that keeps on giving.
Yet for being a populist rabble-rouser himself, Pakistan’s new, energetic Prime Minister, Imran Khan, has come out as fully committed to solving the issue peacefully. In a region dominated by populist politics, this kind of initiative is a luxury that only new leaders with a sufficiently exciting domestic program can afford.
And for all the qualms we may have about his questionable political alliances with Sunni hardliners, Imran Khan is coming to the table with a hugely popular program of domestic governance, which does allow him to take sensible positions on otherwise tempting hot-button issues.
It also helps that Pakistan’s economic prospects depend on almost entirely on large-scale Chinese investment, and Beijing’s largesse comes with demands for political stability and solid security provisions by their partner governments. At this moment in time, Pakistan and Khan stand to gain more from putting this issue to bed than from cynically exploiting it for the domestic audience.
Unfortunately, India’s Narendra Modi is neither a new leader, nor one with a particularly successful domestic economic record. India is doing well economically, and certainly better than Pakistan, but it is doing much less well than it was expected when Modi was first elected, and much less well than it should be given its global position and its natural advantages. That’s where Modi’s Hindu nationalism has been ratcheted up to make up the deficit for his government’s popularity.
Domestically, that has translated in a steady increase in attacks on Muslim minorities by Hindu nationalist mobs, which the local and federal law enforcement agencies have abided, as the BJP politicians have ratcheted up the Hindu nationalist rhetoric. Internationally, this has meant increasing tensions with Pakistan, regardless of whether there was any actual cause to.
At this moment in time, Pakistan and Khan stand to gain more from putting this issue to bed than from cynically exploiting it for the domestic audience.Azeem Ibrahim
So, when Imran Khan wrote to Modi to start a process of peaceful resolution of the Kashmir situation, Modi threw it back in his face, accusing Khan of an “evil agenda”, though it was not even immediately clear what the comment was referring to – it was speculated that it had something to do with the killing of an Indian border security agent in Kashmir by Pakistani elements in recent days, though this is not exactly an uncommon occurrence in the region on either side of the conflict.
Not to be outdone, the leadership of Pakistan’s powerful and independent-minded Army has come stating that they are “prepared for war”. And these events certainly will bolster those elements of Pakistan’s fractious internal political scene who thrive on hostility towards India – the Army being chief among them.
And so, both Pakistan’s Army and the Indian government have put Mr Khan in a position where he cannot but also take a confrontational positions. With that, all parties are in agreement: Kashmir is back at the top of the agenda, and the rhetoric will run wild for the foreseeable future. This suits both the New Delhi and most of Pakistan’s political establishment, and it is hard to see how a would-be peace maker could find an edge in sideways.
As to whether any of this will translate into anything more significant it is hard to say. India and Pakistan have fought wars over Kashmir in the past, but now both are nuclear states. And though both sides are served well by irrational rhetoric, neither side has yet shown that much enthusiasm for mutually assured destruction.
Still, given both the regional and domestic volatility in both countries, we must certainly not be complacent about these latest developments. And the international community must be prepared to step in if things ever look close to spiraling out of control.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.
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