A dialogue table made of dynamite
An invitation to speak at a seminar on Future Directions in India Pakistan relations has left me at my wit’s end. The question defies easy answers even while agreeing that dialogue’s the only option. In a paper published in the Harvard International Review in 2009, National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon had minutely analyzed the complex state of play between our two countries to conclude: “The alternatives to a controlled and limited dialogue — of war and isolation— are either worse or counterproductive and would leave the field open to terrorist and extremist groups and their sponsors.”
Menon hadn’t assumed office as NSA when he wrote the paper. His post-Sharm-el-Sheikh views are broadly valid as there has been no major terrorist strike in India though Pakistan continues to prevaricate on bringing the makers of Mumbai to justice. A public spat there was after the barren Islamabad talks after Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi’s crassly undiplomatic outburst against Indian counterpart S M Krishna. The latter’s delicate handling of the ugly spectacle helped extricate the talks now moving at a tenuous pace— especially on the question of India furnishing evidence acceptable to the Pakistani Court trying the LeT conspirators of the Mumbai massacre.
But a lot that has since happened on our side of Kashmir and within Pakistan could have implications for any bilateral engagement. The floods that devastated large parts of Khyber-Pakhtookhwa, South Punjab and Sindh have seen the Pak Army and anti-India extremist groups gaining popular support at the expense of elected dispensations in Islamabad and in the provinces.
The ruling PPP’s credibility and that of Asif Zardari is at its lowest. The governance record and consequently the image of Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League that controls Punjab are relatively better. Unlike Pervez Musharraf who eventually paid the price of allowing militant tanzeems a free run in PoK after the 2005 earthquake, his successor Ashfaq Pervez Kayani has remained a very visible face in the Army’s flood relief efforts. Being the only amphibian force in Pakistan, the fauj alone could have reached the marooned areas. But such is the nature of that country’s polity that this simple point is lost in the scramble for credit among its multiple power centers. The Army shines in contrast as governments either lack credibility or come across as failing the people in their hour of crisis.
The Army’s graph and that of organizations such as the LeT rose in Pakistan at a time Indian security forces grappled with the upsurge in Srinagar and elsewhere in the Valley. The resultant complications: Islamabad’s refusal to directly accept New Delhi’s USD 25 million assistance for flood relief; Indo-Pak face-offs in the UN over Kashmir reminiscent of the early 1990s.
These developments almost brought to a knot the Thimpu resolve to reduce the trust deficit. Track-II diplomacy has been an immediate casualty of the growing distrust. Peaceniks on either side are either unheard or have found their voices stifled. Many of them fear the possibility of a war in the event of a repeat of Mumbai in India.
The ascendant anti-India lobby has within its grip Pakistani activists dividing time between civil liberties movements at home and cross-border peacemaking. They run now the risk of being branded “Indian moles or agents of an occupation force in Kashmir.” It is perhaps for this reason that many of them have lately come to India with a distinct “My side” bias. One such person slammed what she called India’s “collective arrogance” and another termed Kashmir as the “unfinished agenda” of Pakistan.
Such trends strike at the very roots of Track II initiatives so crucial for creating an ambience for peace and educating popular opinion on the other side’s legitimate concerns.
The Kashmir upsurge has made anti-India elements in Pakistan smell blood. To that extent, New Delhi is accountable for putting peacemakers on the defensive. What’s disappointing however is that much of India bashing is happening under an elected regime led by its nose by the Army leadership on key foreign policy issues such as AfPak, India-Pak and US-Pak. One cannot but help link Qureshi’s tandava in Islamabad to the Army’s discomfiture over Hedley’s deposition linking the ISI to Mumbai’s 26/11.
How then does India trust the lame-duck Pak regime’s promise to contain terrorism or bring the culprits of Mumbai to book? The dichotomy will remain even if the PPP is shown the door and PML (Nawaz) comes to power. To become Prime Minister for the third time, Nawaz Sharif will have to
reach a compromise with the military brass that has seen him take on four Army chiefs— including Asif Nawaz Janjua, Jehangir Karamat, Abdul Waheed Kakar and Pervez Musharraf — in his previous avatars as PM. He has held steadfastly thus far to his promise of not disturbing the PPP applecart as that’ll bring infamy to democratic forces and help the Army.
From all available indications, the Army leadership is even scared of Sharif who has unmatched popularity among the lower ranks of the Punjabi-dominated fauj. On bilateral issues, notably Kashmir, he’ll be negotiating tough with New Delhi. What makes him a better bet is his
policy of befriending India to deny the Army the threat perception it so often flaunts to limit or manipulate the democratic forces’ decision-making role in Pakistan.
Till the time Sharif returns and manages, if at all, a single window clearance, India will have to deal with Pakistan’s multiple power centers. And that, Menon admits in the paper, is a practical problem.
The other challenge before an Indian regime is the diminishing popular support for engaging with an “untrustworthy” Pakistan. Track-II protagonists could have altered such mindsets. But even they are fighting with their back to the wall.