The India-Pakistan relationship has been fraught. But there are signs of a thaw emerging in what had been a frozen relationship ever since former President Pervez Musharraf’s back channel diplomacy faltered in 2007 as his political power began to wane. As a result, it took a major effort by both sides to reopen the dialogue. But this time the Mandarins at the respective foreign offices were entrusted with the duty of finding common ground. Traditionally, diplomats have been unable to break the impasse. They tend to refight old battles. It needed a higher authority, in the shape of a powerful Prime Minister or President.
Against this backdrop, there was some hope when the foreign ministers met in Islamabad recently, following a meeting of the foreign secretaries. But the divergent comments by them in their respective capitals at the end of this dialogue indicate that a lot still remains unresolved.
We invited reactions from regional commentators, including our own non-resident senior fellows.
The hawks on both sides have won, again. At some point the minutiae becomes irrelevant. Did Pillai sink the talks between Krishna and Qureshi by blaming the ISI for the Mumbai attacks a day before the foreign ministers were to meet? Did Krishna’s inflexibility during the talks and the joint press conference with Qureshi torpedo any chance of a breakthrough, however small?
Did Qureshi’s impolitic outburst while Krishna was still in Pakistan deep six the peace process for the foreseeable future? Forget about it. Leave the parsing of the details and the blame game to the Foreign Office types. Here’s the problem: the hawks on neither side are convinced about the benefit of talking to each other right now.
Start with the Indians. (No, not because they’re more to blame, but you have to start somewhere. I’m going by the alphabetical approach.) India is divided when it comes to Pakistan. One camp believes the Mumbai attacks were orchestrated and executed by the Pakistan Army through its militant proxies. This leads them to a one, central conclusion: relations with Pakistan cannot improve until Pakistan does something meaningful about a) going after the specific people involved in the Mumbai attacks and b) beginning to roll back the ‘India-centric’ jihadis cultivated here.
The other camp argues that while Mumbai may or may not be the doing of the Pakistan Army, not talking to Pakistan is self-defeating for India. It’s not so much that everyone in this camp believes there are ‘genuine’ disputes between the two states, but that it is in India’s own interest to lower tensions between the countries.
The logic is tied to this camp’s idea of India: a growing economic power with extra-regional ambitions. While Pakistan can’t drive India off its inevitable path to greatness, Mumbai-type attacks can delay that process and make it more complicated. Hence, this camp wants to move past the focus on Mumbai: tension with Pakistan distracts India from what should be its real focus — economic and global power status.
Where there is a consensus in India it is on one thing: that Manmohan Singh genuinely wants to move the dialogue process forward with Pakistan. (Leave aside speculation about his reasons for doing so: bringing stability to Indian-held Kashmir or achieving peace with Pakistan? The two are not necessarily the same thing.)
But the Indian prime minister appears to be presiding over a divided cabinet. Hawks like Chidambaram, perhaps with prime ministerial ambitions of their own, want to keep the Indian foot on Pakistan’s neck; more moderate figures, perhaps like Krishna, are eyeing the overall dividends of lowering tension with Pakistan.
For now, the hawks appear to have won. Under American pressure, the Indians seem to have tweaked their Pakistan policy the bare minimum: change of tone, the appearance of talks, but no real change in substance — it’s still all Mumbai, Mumbai, Mumbai.
Turn now to Pakistan. That the political government has surrendered the foreign policy/national security domain to the army is clear, whatever the meek protestations of Qureshi & co. So we’ll leave them out of this. The problem here is that the army’s line on India has hardened in recent times, an increasing hawkishness that can be interpreted several ways.
The more charitable explanation is that the army is merely calibrating Pakistan’s policy towards India on the basis of Indian intransigence towards Pakistan. From this perspective, the Indian single-point agenda of Mumbai is just subterfuge for not talking about ‘core’ issues, like Kashmir and water, and overlooks the destabilising investments India is making in its conventional war machinery.
The moderate hawkish line is that while India is not willing to talk to Pakistan for whatever reasons internal to it, Pakistan should focus on improving its internal security situation and stabilising the economy: the Indian neighbour isn’t going anywhere, when they are ready to talk, we’ll talk; but we aren’t going to beg them to talk, we’ll just focus on putting our own house in order in the meantime.
In fairness, if that were the real reason for the stiff line the army appears to be taking towards India, it would be justified.
But there is a less charitable explanation that cannot be ignored: that the army may be up to its old tricks again and isn’t really interested in peace. There is, observers say, some ‘proof’ of this.
It took Pakistan weeks to admit what everyone knew, that Ajmal Kasab was a Pakistani. Why? Here was a possibility to come forward and show Pakistan’s clean hands. Instead the army clung to its standard approach: never give the enemy an inch.
Worse, why has movement on the Mumbai front been so slow? Sure, it took India more than a year to convict Kasab even though the proof was overwhelming and direct. Still, it is hard to shake the feeling that Pakistan has done less than the bare minimum to bring any kind of closure on the Mumbai attacks.
Enter the fiendish complexity. When articulated it can come across as terribly naïve and simplistic: that the Pakistan Army is institutionally averse to peace with India because it would undermine its power inside Pakistan.
Yet, some of Pakistan’s most articulate, intelligent and informed members of its foreign policy elite with decades of experience under their belts often make precisely this argument, in private and with some grimness.
The army’s response is fierce and predictable. Nonsense, the generals say, India is Enemy No 1 for a reason. And then they go on to list those reasons, many of which are genuine. It has nothing to do with internal power dynamics, according to the army.
Think of it this way, though. If you were to ask Bill O’Reilly or Glenn Beck or Sean Hannity of Fox News if anyone tells them what to say, they will say no. And they are probably right. They say what they say because often they genuinely mean it. They genuinely believe in the values of the right, whatever those may be, in America.
Who better to further the propaganda of the right than those who actually believe in it? O’Reilly, Beck and Hannity have the platform they have because the bosses at Fox News realise there is no one better to hawk an ideology than a true believer.As with all analogies, it is imperfect: a similar dynamic may be at work among the Pakistan Army officers. So fiercely schooled are they in the feinbild of India as the enemy that they can’t see what others can.
It is not about us dominating Pakistan, army officers swear, it’s about us defending Pakistan. To be fair, most of them are so focused on the latter, they don’t see its connection with the former.
But what most in the army can’t see and what some choose not to see still has real effects. And right now that could be the real reason the hawks have won.
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