New Delhi: While the Pakistan army is powerful in Pakistan’s political setup, it is not all-powerful. As long as it takes the hard line against India, it remains unchallenged. The moment it appears liberal and seeks some manner of peace with India, its position in Pakistan is rendered weak. This is even more the case in outcomes of war. When the Pakistan army lost the 1971 war to India, not only was the military dictator, Yahya Khan, derided and demeaned, the political class led by Z. A. Bhutto also took advantage. His hubris came to end with his hanging by another dictator.

On the other hand, Pakistan’s political class is always disadvantaged with respect to India. Smart politicians value peace and diplomacy over war. War without cogent political objectives cannot be won and these conditions are rarely met. Armies as a rule do not like wars. Since they bear the brunt of war, they prefer the exhaustion of other options prior. There is no reason to believe that the Pakistan army is an exception to this rule. All the same, the 1971 defeat rankles. A war victory over India would square things but the time has passed for war. War in the present circumstances would be nuclear with no winners in the sub-continent.

Nevertheless, Pakistan’s political class cannot somehow turn a situation which is not conducive to war to peace with India. Extreme nationalism of the Pakistan army casts a long shadow. It has, for example, consistently punished Nawaz Sharief for seeking peace with India. The hard line against India seems to have a life of its own. You could understand that when violence in Jammu and Kashmir has reached a pitch. You cannot turn away from the horror of daily news and especially the monster version presented on television. But the autonomous life of the hard line exists even in times of relative quiet in Kashmir. General elections have been held in Pakistan where India was not an issue. More often than not, the United States was enemy number one when drone attacks were killing civilians in addition to militants. Still, the hard line against India has never gone away. Today, it is at a peak.

Which is why it astonishes that Pakistan’s army chief, Qamar Javed Bajwa, should speak in favour of peace with India. At no time did he seek to insert the institution of the Pakistan army into the peace process. Correctly, he put the onus on the elected government while promising the support of the Pakistan army. For good measure, he lamented the absence of a Pakistan foreign minister. It could be taken to mean that the Pakistan army is reluctant to shoulder the burden of foreign affairs longer. This would have a direct bearing on India and Afghanistan since geopolitics concerning them is entirely controlled by the Pakistan army.

While General Bajwa’s venture into the virgin territory of peace with India is remarkable, India’s response would have to be cautious. The ball definitely is in Pakistan’s court. All India can do is wait and watch while being receptive to peace gestures. Still, if the press got Bajwa right, it is a significant development. The Pakistan army is a close-knit institution. While there may be ideological and individual differences at the top, the chief’s position is not compromised. To be sure, he is the first among equals and respects that reality. He cannot go contrary to the majority opinion of the corps commanders, the centre of power of the Pakistan army. That is to say his public pronouncements have to have the full backing of the Pakistan army. If General Bajwa seeks peace with India, it has to be accepted as the considered position of the Pakistan army.

What’s caused the change of heart? Is the peace sentiment likely to last?

The peace sentiment for India is an endangered species in Pakistan. Just as reflexive hard line against Pakistan prevails in India, so it does in Pakistan. It is the infinity mirror effect or comes close. But there is also a difference. The hard line in India against Pakistan is mostly restricted to the RSS/ BJP and their constituencies. Public opinion is not au fond opposed to Pakistan although Pakistani terrorism does put a strain on goodwill. The Pakistani people are not seen as the other in most contexts. People-to-people relations are cordial. The difference on the Pakistani side is the competition to own the hard line against India. If it is not the Pakistan army, it will be the mullahs and terrorist leaders like Hafiz Sayeed, and oddly, even politicians. Imran Khan, too, cannot resist taking a swipe at India now and then despite his intimacy with the Indian glitterati. If despite all this General Bajwa has reiterated peace with India, it deserves serious attention.

What’s the trigger for it? Is it tactical, strategic or genuine? These are questions which are impossible to answer with any certainty. As a person, General Bajwa is promising. No sooner than he became chief, this writer praised his centredness, which caused some unintended perception problems for him in the army. He has considerable command experience of the frontier regions with India and he follows India closely. He would, therefore, know more about the value of peace with India than any of his predecessors or subordinate corps commanders. He is open to Afghanistan-India trade through Pakistan. He showed his openness much before the Chabahar route became operational but India was wary.

There are also foreign influences at work. This writer would hesitate to call it pressure because the Pakistan army is unlikely to feel pressured by foreign powers to make peace with India. The Pakistan army enjoys close ties with the Chinese PLA and the Pentagon. It is reasonable to assume that the US secretary of defence, James Mattis, has been a good influence on the Pakistan top brass and particularly General Bajwa. A former marine general, Mattis knows the importance of peace and diplomacy (unlike his boss, one might add). The Chinese are also likely to have contributed in a major way to the shifting trajectory of the Pakistan army. Geopolitics principally is about geo-economics today. Pakistan stands to gain geo-economically by making peace with India. It is early days, however. Pakistan has to reach a domestic consensus for peace with India and General Bajwa has to walk the talk. It would doubtless assist if India does not slam the door on dialogue.