By Swapan Dasgupta
In the world of Punjabi humour, Nattha Singh and Prem Singh may well be the same thing (or Singh), but it was a cruel joke that Islamabad inflicted last Tuesday night when it clarified that Sarabjit Singh had in fact been mistaken for Surjeet Singh. The sheer insensitivity of this wilful mix-up apart, the incident, however, served to confirm once again—as if further confirmation was needed—that when it comes to the bilateral relationship with India, the last word doesn’t belong to either the President or the Prime Minister.
This unfortunate reminder of the quirks of Pakistani democracy is, however, timely. For the past year or so, an influential section of India’s foreign policy establishment has made the strengthening of Islamabad’s civilian government one of its main objectives. More than that, they readily believed that the war-like situation along the Durand Line and growing frostiness in US-Pakistan relations had actually helped tilt the balance against the military. Last Tuesday’s midnight clarification should help to inject a much-needed dose of realism into the official Indian perception of Pakistan.
President Asif Ali Zardari may indeed be a jolly fellow, a man who genuinely believes that cross-border trade is better than costly trench warfare. Unfortunately, neither he nor the well-meaning cosmopolitan set that frequently travel to India to preach aman ki asha, count for too much in Pakistan’s power equations. True, a military establishment that has been shown to be quite helpless against the repeated violations of Pakistan’s sovereignty by US Special Forces, isn’t quite what it was in the heydays of General Zia-ul Haq and General Pervez Musharraf. It has shown itself to be quite ragged round the edges. Yet, in a country replete with multiple power centres—that include the US-hating, India-loathing Islamist radicals—the cantonments still have a nominal upper hand. And when the military combines with the Islamists—as they did on the Sarabjit Singh issue—they become all-powerful.
This is a fundamental truth that India has been trying to impress upon world leaders from the day Osama bin Laden’s suicide bombers destroyed the twin towers in New York and attacked the Pentagon in September 2001. Last May, after the Abbottabad operation confirmed the presence of Osama in the heart of the Pakistan military establishment, the US has come round to the view that what India and, for that matter, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, have been saying for so long is right. It is now recognised in Washington that far from being a part of the solution, Pakistan is central to the problem.
When President Barack Obama assumed power in 2008, there was nervousness in New Delhi that the cosy relationship established with President George W. Bush would be unsettled. Indeed, some of Obama’s early utterances triggered concern in India over the future direction of US policy in the region. Today, all those misgivings have been dispelled—at least as far as Pakistan is concerned. If President Bush, despite his long-term commitment to a rising India, was still willing to give Pakistan an extraordinary amount of leeway, President Obama has shown himself to be completely exasperated with Pakistan. The sheer ferocity of the drone attacks is, for all practical purposes, tantamount to a US declaration of war against Pakistan.
What has been witnessed in the past couple of years is the unravelling of a US-Pakistan alliance that had been forged in the early days of the Cold War. Having been made suckers for long, the US attitude towards Pakistan is distinctly vengeful. Washington, it would seem, is out to punish the Pakistan military for its duplicity and treachery. The quiet role played by the US in nudging Saudi Arabia to extradite Zabiuddin Ansari, alias Abu Jundal, to India earlier this week, would suggest that the pusillanimity evident in the A.Q. Khan controversy may be a thing of the past. The US now wants Pakistan’s dirty linen to be exposed to the world—even if that involves admitting the earlier gullibility of the State Department and CIA.
Even if it is bad form to gloat over the misfortunes of a neighbour, India can afford to take a we-told-you-so attitude. Yet, it is inexplicable that a section of the Indian establishment seems to be deeply embarrassed at Pakistan’s embarrassment. Having an independent foreign policy is always a noble goal. Keeping an arm’s length from the US and other NATO forces has earned India tremendous goodwill and secured some leverage in Afghanistan. Is there now an attempt to tell a worried Islamabad that India will keep its distance from the US-Pakistan divorce proceedings? That India will do its bit to prevent Pakistan from being engulfed in a siege mentality?
Obviously there is. Why else did the Cabinet Committee on Security feel obliged to repudiate yet another attempt to secure the demilitarisation of Siachen? What explains the concern in South Block that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s anxiety to visit Pakistan before 2014 with some grand gesture of reconciliation may result in some foreign policy missteps?
Fortunately for India, the scope for unilateral action on the part of a beleaguered Government is very limited. The UPA Government no longer has the capacity to take bold initiatives. Pragmatism should deem that India should confine itself to modest, baby steps in its Pakistan policy. Bold initiatives necessitate a Pakistan at peace with itself. That, tragically, is a distant hope.