India-Pakistan: it would take three to tango

Published in the Daily Times on January 20, 2004

The peace process is yet to begin. What has begun is a commitment to a dialogue. Pakistan has made the first move to make the dialogue a success. It is time for India to reciprocate. And the US can help in this because it too stands to benefit

Once again the region has come alive with talk of peace. But to carry forward the dialogue, India and Pakistan need to bring their policies in line with their aspirations for peace. Otherwise the ground realities will soon overwhelm the rhetoric and we may see false start to yet another peace move. Long running disputes, embedded in bitter history, chained to domestic political weaknesses and burdened by an all-pervasive sense of righteousness and wilful denial of limits of power, are not susceptible to sudden breakthroughs. Lofty rhetoric apart, the history of such relationships is resistant to any ‘historic change’. At best, enlightened leaderships, inspired by a vision or challenged by circumstances, can foster a favourable climate for change and then work seriously to fashion new ground realities that can stimulate the search for peace.

The leaders of Pakistan and India have been meeting from time to time, expressing their genuine desire to live in peace but their good intentions, if there were any, were not enough; they merely cloaked policies that were either bad or too rigid. Disputes that are propelled by history and by issues that impinge on national objectives and identities need national consensus to facilitate any shift in policies. And it is for the political leaderships to educate the public to change their inherited attitudes, the very habits of thoughts that they may have promoted or instigated in the first place.

Or for the leaders of public opinion to put pressure on a recalcitrant leadership, benefiting from the status quo that is taking the nation down a wrong road, to change its mind set. In the absence of this preparatory work diplomatic initiatives turn out to be charades, and pious intentions soon evaporate into thin air, sometimes even before a summit has ended.

There is something different however in the current talk of peace. September 11, the US re-engagement with Pakistan, as part of the war on terrorism as well as India’s sustained diplomatic and military pressure on Pakistan have played a seminal role in prompting General Pervez Musharraf to bend his position. The ground realities in Pakistan are thus beginning to change. Pakistan may be finally realising that it had overstretched strategically by following a forward foreign policy in the region for which Pakistan, and indeed the world, paid a heavy price.

Moderate segments of the population are becoming painfully aware that the Pakistan military’s ambitions in Kashmir and Afghanistan had complicated the search for solution to the country’s problems specially by short changing the political process and by contributing to the growth of religious militancy. Its stability had been further strained by poor governance leading to impoverishment of the country and its diplomatic isolation abroad. Indeed a colossal price for pleasing national vanity and satisfying an exaggerated sense of insecurity.

Musharraf gives some hope for change. The moderates in the Indian leadership led by statesmen like Vajpayee have grasped not only the stirrings of change in Pakistan but the sensitivity of the moment, and of the risks and opportunities in developing an appropriate response to it. They probably realised that if India continued to take a hard line, this would subvert the process of change.

It is true that Musharraf needs to expand the reform agenda and make it enduring but this is not going to be easy. He needs to build a reformist coalition in the country and for that he has to keep many balls in the air. None of his potential allies can give him unqualified support. While each may support him on one issue it may oppose him on another. If he pleases one ally he displeases another. It has become a zero sum game. At issue is the complex of such sensitive matters like relations with India, Kashmir, Afghanistan, economy and relations with the United States, not to mention his own survival, personal as well as political. And at stake is the future of the country itself. There is very little margin of error left now.

The fact is he has already come a long way in his search for peace and to clean up at home, but the remaining ground cannot be covered without India’s cooperation and US engagement as the issues involved are not local and regional but global. Indeed it would take three to tango.

South Asia has been changed by the post-cold war world, its nuclearisation and September 11, and so has the basis of its relation with the US. The United States now considers its relations with both India and Pakistan as important. With Pakistan it seeks influence to effect changes helpful to its interests in South Asia and beyond. Pakistan is a crucial partner and a target in the war on terrorism that impacts on US security and on Pakistan’s own stability. An unstable Pakistan fosters militancy, endangers its nuclear assets, raises the potential for conflict with India over Kashmir, and threatens its own internal cohesion.

The success of so much that the US does in, and for, Pakistan so that it can remain a reliable partner in the war on terrorism, would involve India’s cooperation. In the growth of extremism in Pakistan, India (in Kashmir) has been a problem but could now be part of a solution, to be facilitated by US. India cannot dismiss the Kashmir dispute by its constant refrain that it is an integral part of India. You do not need to deploy 600,000 troops to hang on to a territory that you call your own. It has got to find a viable and just solution of Kashmir.

The peace process is yet to begin. What has begun is a commitment to a dialogue. Pakistan has made the first move to make the dialogue a success. It is time for India to reciprocate. And the US can help in this because it too stands to benefit. In the past the US could benefit only from one relationship at a time, either with Pakistan or India, as it was a zero sum game. Now the issues are such that the US needs friendship of both the countries, and that can happen only if their relations are normalised.

The writer is a former Ambassador