YBy Swapan Dasgupta
Engaging-with-Pakistan has been one of Delhi’s big growth industries over the past 15 years. Apart from domestic investment (both from the public and private sectors), it has attracted generous quantities of Foreign Direct Investment, despite not having much to show by way of tangible returns. As such, its many well-heeled stakeholders feel an understandable anxiety over the Narendra Modi government’s sharp decision to call off a proposed meeting of Foreign Secretaries in Islamabad. It is not that the lack of official cooperation shuts off investments in an illusionary scheme; it merely reduces the number of journeys on the proverbial gravy train.
The hand wringing by Track-II travellers on English-language TV channels and the finger-wagging articles by members of the so-called strategic community should, ideally, not worry the government unduly. A reading of political history suggests that diplomacy often acquires a life of its own, detached from political realities. A jolt is often necessary to bring the players crashing back to earth.
In his magisterial book The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Unionpublished earlier this year, Professor Serhii Plokhy of Harvard University has documented a surprising facet of US policy. Contrary to the gung-ho, ‘we won the Cold War’ proclamations that emanated after the red flag was lowered for the last time in the Kremlin on December 25, 1991, the reality was that the George Bush Administration tried quite hard to preserve the Soviet Union in the face of the pro-independence impulses of the Soviet Republics, notably Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. Apart from Defence Secretary Dick Cheney (later Vice President in the George W. Bush dispensation), the senior members of the Bush Administration now saw their old adversary as the only guarantor of stability in the face of an uncertain future.
Ostensibly, the US policy-makers may have been prompted by their concern over the Soviet Union’s nuclear assets. But their conservatism and the reluctance to explore emerging alternatives to an over-centralised Soviet empire crafted by Stalin somehow seems a little more basic: a refusal to liquidate a Cold War-centric business that had been running successfully since 1945. The idea that the US would have to re-orient its diplomacy to factor in the particularities of a dozen or more independent republics seemed too daunting and troublesome. Dealing with a single command centre in Moscow seemed safer and more reassuring. After all, US-Soviet relations had entered a phase of dreary predictability.
Needless to say, these were academic discussions since Washington’s capacity to shape the eventual outcome in Moscow, Kiev, Minsk and the Asian capitals was negligible. The pro-independence feeling were just too strong (particularly in Russia) and the hatred for the Soviet system too deep for any patchwork solutions to take shape. Washington won the Cold War decisively but its role in securing that victory was entirely reactive. The Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions.
Are there lessons for India’s diplomats and policy-makers from this this, relatively unknown chapter of one of the most momentous events of the 20thcentury?
Since last Monday’s decision to call off the visit of the Foreign Secretary to Islamabad, the Modi government has been severely criticised by the ‘strategic community’ for allowing its Pakistan policy to be guided by base populist considerations. The votaries of “uninterrupted and uninterruptible” dialogue are, quite predictably, livid. For them, Pakistan is more than a neighbour: it is an infatuation. On a more serious plane, the diplomatic historian Srinath Raghavan has articulated a concern that has also found an echo among ‘pro-democracy’ elements inside Pakistan. “At a time”, wrote Raghavan in an article in The Hindu, “when the civilian government in Pakistan is on the back foot, New Delhi’s digging of its heels will only comfort the military.”
The belief that Pakistan is witnessing another phase of the never-ending tussle between the elected civilian government and the military is, by now, conventional wisdom. The accompanying conviction that New Delhi must do its bit to bolster Pakistan’s democracy and edge out the military that nurtures visceral anti-India sentiments is also deeply ingrained in Delhi’s strategic thinking. Judged from these perspectives, India’s redrawing of the red lines of engagement at a time when the Imran Khan-Tahirul Qadri combine is questioning Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s legitimacy is inopportune.
Even if, for the sake of argument the dubious assumption of a Pakistani civilian government conducting its India policy without military oversight is accepted, a question arises: what is India’s capacity to modify the power equations in Islamabad? The answer is obvious: zero. Whether it was the Lahore bus ride of Atal Behari Vajpayee or Manmohan Singh’s Sharm-el-Sheikh capitulation, Pakistan hasn’t moved an inch from its determination to both view bilateral relations through the Kashmir prism and to inflict pain on India wherever possible. Bending over backwards to accommodate a civilian government sounds noble but the returns from such an approach are either negligible or negative. India’s Pakistan policy has to be detached from seasonal variations in Islamabad.
Secondly, all the evidence suggests that Pakistan is experiencing a profound existential crisis. Apart from normal democratic turbulence, it has been affected by different schisms: Shia versus Sunni, state versus jihadi Islam and Centre versus states. The very “idea of Pakistan” has been changing over time and the existing elites are being constantly challenged by elements that draw inspiration from wild, antediluvian ideas. Despite the all-pervasive fear of the shadowy ISI, the writ of the Pakistan state does not run uniformly.
For India to cling on to an idea of Pakistan as a member of a once undivided family is exhilarating for those for whom life is one big mushaira with generous helping of kebab. The reality may less appetising. Since geography can’t be altered India will have to engage with Pakistan. But let’s do so with eyes wide open and without any illusion that our magnanimity will lead to an onrush of brotherhood. An approach centred on benign neglect may be in order till the time Pakistan sorts itself out first.
Asian Age, August 22, 2014