August 2001 News

A Neo-Realist Script

6 August 2001

NEW DELHI: Like conjoined twins, India and Pakistan share a birth defect that dooms their future. Many Indians and Pakistanis agree that partition is a historical blunder. But we cannot undo that damage. We cannot surgically separate the two nations that are united by geography, divided by history. So, we just have to learn to live with it, even though it pre-ordains trouble. Optimism in the media, in the bjp, in the external affairs ministry and in the pmo regarding India-Pakistan relations is misplaced. No doubt, it is politically correct to be optimistic. It can be therapeutic too. Optimism helps many terminally ill patients to live longer. But it's not known to cure the disease. Besides, optimism can be dangerous when it lowers India's guard, as has happened in the past. Post-natal relations between India and Pakistan have been as star-crossed as the traumatic birth, providing no cause for cheer. Kashmir is India's burden, but Pakistan's lifeline. That is among the many reasons why I am pessimistic about the two countries solving their problems. Why should Pakistan dilute or renounce its obsession with Kashmir? What's in it for them if they do? Everybody, especially the Americans, increasingly view Pakistan as a "failed state". What clout can a failed state wield in the international arena? Pakistan knows this only too well. It realises that today it only has "nuisance value", whether it is regarding the Kashmir conflict, nuclear threat or Islamic fundamentalists. Pakistan needs to keep the Kashmir conflict alive if it is to be heard in the West. A boiling Kashmir makes it difficult for the West to ignore Pakistan, which given their inherently low level of interest in South Asia, can happen all too easily. Another reason why India-Pakistan relations are doomed is because in Pakistan there is a growing vacuum where a middle class should be. In any country, it is the middle class which becomes the engine for peace and stability, because its prosperity depends on these two aspects. Large chunks of Pakistan's middle class have been emigrating; the wealthy have a foot abroad. (This unfortunately is happening in India too, the only difference being this segment is so huge that there will always be millions and millions from among the middle class who will remain in the country.) Thus, those who have the maximum stake in Pakistan's peace and stability are fleeing, casting their no-confidence votes with their feet. The upper and lower crust will remain, thereby indirectly maintaining the status quo of instability. They will hang on because the feudal families have too much to lose. And the poor have nothing to lose. It's also disheartening the way Pakistan doesn't honour past agreements. Tashkent, Simla, Lahore. Given Pakistan's track record, what sanctity can yet another accord have? What makes the scenario even more grim is the fact that Pakistani leaders who signed agreements with India seemed to have sowed the seeds of their own extinction. Musharraf and his successors will surely be mindful of this pattern. There are still many more reasons that justify pessimism. The creation of Bangladesh still rankles in the Pakistani establishment, and the flame of revenge still burns in many hearts. For Indian officials, Kashmir is only a matter of semantics and arguments, but for Pakistanis Kashmir is a highly emotional issue. This is why India cannot tackle the Kashmir problem by advocating the same tactic that India and China have adopted. Aksai Chin is the real and tricky dispute between the two giants. It's difficult to resolve this issue without entailing a loss of face for one of them. So, the two nations took a more pragmatic line of approach—leave this issue aside and get on with the other tasks; improve trade, cultural and other areas of bilateral cooperation. This strategy has paid off well in thawing relations. But this formula cannot be replicated in the India-Pakistan context. Aksai Chin is a bald, uninhabited godforsaken place. Kashmir isn't. It's an emotional issue that involves the destinies of millions of people. The argument that trade can improve relations is also quite simplistic. Trade, in fact, often aggravates tensions. Pakistan traders can feel cheated and manipulated by Indians. The bania is hated in Nepal, how much more will he be hated in Pakistan? Trade can sour good relations, so the chances of it improving relations between two suspicious and hostile neighbours are not very bright. Yet another reason for pessimism is that Pakistan conducts diplomacy through the media. This guarantees brownie points, but it also guarantees failure. If tricky negotiations are to succeed, they must be shrouded in a veil of secrecy. If all the twists and turns of negotiations are made public, then the lobbies and vested interests of both parties get activated, creating more and more roadblocks, which then become impossible to surmount. As in the case of a domestic quarrel, it is better to keep it within the four walls. Media hype distorts reality, provides entertainment, complicates issues, intensifies pressures and eventually guarantees both fatigue and failure. The Oslo peace process made so much headway in West Asia because it was kept secret for long. Closer home, Jaswant Singh can tell you how keeping talks with Strobe Talbot off limits to the media helped hasten progress in improving relations. But does this mean we should abandon dialogue with Pakistan? It means exactly the opposite. We have to engage Pakistan constantly and consistently in dialogue. Silence always has disastrous consequences; it magnifies misunderstandings into full-fledged hostilities. Thrashing out issues frequently clears the air between two nations. But instead of optimism, we need a dose of sobering, hard-nosed realism: the primary reason to engage in talks with Pakistan is not to become buddies but to prevent war.


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