Paul Staniland, an Assistant Professor of Political Science and Codirector of the Program on International Security Policy at the University of Chicago, spoke to The Kashmir Walla on how the Pulwama attack changed political dynamics in south Asia, Indian government’s claim of bringing in normalcy to Kashmir, and what’s ahead in India-Pakistan-China foreign policy.
This week completes one year since India and Pakistan engaged with each other furiously after the Pulwama attack. How much did the Indo-Pak relationship change since then?
The India-Pakistan relationship has gotten even worse over the last year, including very open insults traded between leaders and the use of each country as a target in the other’s domestic politics. Clashes recur along the LoC [Line of Control], the abrogation of Article 370 has led to another round of diplomatic tension, and [Narendra] Modi government has deployed Pakistan as a tool in its election campaigns, while the Pakistan Army has consolidated influence within the Pakistani political system in part by pointing to the threat from India. There is not much meaningful positive movement to point to.
Kashmir remains at the core of the issues between India and Pakistan. Looking at the past year, do you see Kashmir issue getting sidelined in future?
It’s hard to say what the future of the Kashmir issue is between the two countries. India is clearly aiming to take the issue off the table by focusing on the Pakistani side of the LoC rather than negotiating over the entirety of the former princely state. Pakistan is trying to keep its claim alive on the international stage, largely through rhetoric and public diplomacy, while navigating its own diplomatic challenges (like FATF [Financial Action Task Force] and economic crisis). India’s preference would be for Kashmir to disappear from international awareness, but thus far that has not occurred – interest and concern remain evident, even if most governments are not interested in upsetting Delhi by bringing it up too forcefully.
How do you see the impact of their relationship on Kashmir in near future, politically and locally as well?
I think we can expect continued military skirmishes, and possibly new rounds of interstate crisis, all of which are bad for Kashmir, whether the welfare of civilians along the LoC or the state of the economy. While I think Delhi would like to simply create its own facts on the ground in Kashmir, my guess is that Pakistan will retain a deep interest and aim to influence the region.
After the abrogation of special status of Jammu and Kashmir, the government of India said, “it will restore peace” in Kashmir. Do you think we are on way to peaceful Kashmir, if not what would be disturbing it?
From my admittedly-distant vantage point, it seems like India has been able to limit, though not eliminate, anti-state attacks, but there is little evidence that a deeper normalcy or peace exists or will soon exist. If the situation was as normal as the country’s most senior leadership has claimed, there would be little reason to maintain many of the restrictions currently in place. The future is inherently unpredictable, so I can’t offer any confident predictions, but the abrogation of 370 seems unlikely to fundamentally change key sources of conflict and tension. Back in August  I suggested that a policy of boldness was not the same as wise strategy when it comes to Delhi’s approach, and thus far I continue to stand by that assessment.
Looking at China’s reaction in last one year and her friendship with Pakistan, how is India to navigate between this triangle in terms of foreign policy, having Kashmir also in the middle of it all?
China’s policies seem aimed to keeping India off-balance by maintaining strong ties with Pakistan and sporadically raising Kashmir at the international level. That said, there seems to be little appetite in China for a major armed confrontation, so this is best thought of as diplomatic manoeuvring. Kashmir seems to be used as a pressure point by China when it wants to make life more uncomfortable for India.
Are we looking at the more aggressive India now or just a phase. What would you call India’s actions since February 2019?
The Modi government has clearly moved toward a much more rhetorically aggressive stance toward Pakistan, and the Balakot airstrikes (regardless of their successes or lack thereof) signalled a willingness to take much riskier military actions. The 2019 general election, and some of the state election campaigns since, have involved the government playing up its national security hawkishness. There is clearly an aspiration to “put Pakistan in its place” and focus on grander global politics. Set against this aspiration, however, remains Pakistan’s military strength and the risks it creates for escalation (as we saw with the Pakistani retaliation on 27 February), the challenges India’s military faces in modernizing, and the many other political challenges the Modi government faces. So this combination makes it difficult to be sure how the future will play out: there are forces for escalation but also countervailing pressures that may lead to incendiary rhetoric (potentially escalatory in its own right, to be sure) but not equivalent uses or threats of force.
Do you see India and Pakistan engaging into dialogue again? If yes or no, what are the reasons you find in it.
While there may be some movement in the future, it’s difficult at this point to imagine a major positive change in their relationship. The consolidation of [General Qamar Javed] Bajwa’s power via his extension as COAS could create an opening, but is just as likely to harden Pakistan’s position in the face of what it sees as a deeply hostile, Hindu nationalist aspiring hegemon. In turn, Delhi views Pakistan as a profoundly dysfunctional danger to be contained rather than engaged, given Pakistan’s long background of state-backed terrorism and militancy and the failure of past peace parleys. I very much hope I’m wrong, but I expect more of the same rather than a marked improvement.
The interview appeared in our 17-23 February 2020 print edition.