Saturday, 26 March 2022

India-Pakistan:  A missile misfired opens up opportunity

Pakistan has surprised India twice in the past month.Most recently, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan praised India’s position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine for maintaining “an independent foreign policy” for the “betterment of people.”

Prime Minister Khan’s remarks came amid Pakistan’s refrain from taking action when a misfired Indian cruise missile accidentally landed in Pakistani territory. India, for its part, has acknowledged that an inquiry is underway—papering over the legitimate questions that arose over its lack of transparency immediately after the missile crashed and its failure to keep Pakistan informed of the mishap. Though the supersonic missile did little damage, the knowledge that it was a “dual-use”Brahmos missile could have proven a trigger for crisis escalation. 

Fortunately, the context is one of rare convergence on India and Pakistan’s delicate positioning concerning Russia’s war in Ukraine. Both India and Pakistan have tried to maintain cordial relationships with Ukraine and its backers—the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)—and Russia. While Prime Minister Imran Khan was present in Moscow when Russia launched the armed attack on Ukraine, Pakistan remained neutral during a UN vote on Ukraine.India also abstained at multiple fora where Russia’s action came up for censure: in the United Nations Security Council, the General Assembly, and the Human Rights Council.  

Thus, when India and Pakistan found themselves in a similar predicament on the war in Ukraine, the two sides were able to take a wide-angled view and move past the missile episode soberly.

Their similar positioning on Ukraine was on the back of growing cooperation in other arenas, that when buoyed by their non-confrontational attitude to the accidental missile launch, can potentially manifest this turn in their interrelations into a trend.

Since reiterating the ceasefire on the Line of Control in February 2021, the two sides have been tentativelyworking through ways to get past their hostility. Their most recent instance of working together was on the humanitarian front, allowing for the transit of wheat from India through Pakistan intended as food assistance for Afghanistan.

Pakistan also avoided retaliating against the accidental missile launch since itis interested in improving its relationship with India now thatits reaction to India’s revocation of Article 370 has run its course. Pakistan has thus far largely privileged a diplomatic response in the aftermath of the abrogation of Article 370, rather than a re-upping of its proxy war. The outbreak of the COVID-19 epidemic in early 2020 also put a halt to any military action Pakistan may have contemplated against India. Chinese intrusion into Ladakh and preoccupation with the US withdrawal in Afghanistanmay have also constrained Pakistan from upping the military ante. 

Faced with all those limitations, Pakistan has reportedly sounded India through back-channel talks to return a degree of autonomy to Kashmir.  Since this initiative of Pakistan was in play during the misfired missile episode, Pakistan perhaps did not want to jeopardize it by overly embarrassing India.

On the back of an advantage, India is well on the way to organizing elections in Jammu and Kashmir. The afresh delimitation of constituencies is almost complete. India’s home minister has indicated the way forward as being elections followed, at a suitable time, by a return to statehood. India would be loath to have a crisis with Pakistan derail its plans. Therefore, after some initial demur, India it forthrightly acknowledged its mistake, thereby nipping the potential crisis in the bud.   

The Indian defense minister’s statements in parliament accepting the mistake is intended to also reassure Pakistan. Ideally, the inquiry must come up with recommendations to follow through on the Memorandum of Understanding dating to the Lahore Declaration of 1999. 

Should the inquiry underway in India take cognisance the forward looking contents of the   Memorandum and call on India to operationalise the measures in collaboration with Pakistan, it would provide India the cover to proceed down the route the two sides arguably ought to have taken long back. Had they done so, they would already have in place the protocols to respond to such incident.

 Improved relations between India and Pakistan best explain the absence of a crisis sparked by the misfired missile landing in Pakistan. For Pakistan, the advantage would be in posturing that their intercession with India – even if off the radar screen –led up to the action. It hopes to incentivize Indian reciprocation in easing up its dragnet in Kashmir, while India would prefer Pakistan to not complicate the campaign to UT assembly elections.

The mature actions of the two states in wake of the misfired missile not only reflect the improving relations but using the episode to strengthen CBMs will broaden the silver lining, enabling both to move in tandem on other issues that continue to plague the relationship, including Jammu and Kashmir.