By Swapan Dasgupta
Ever since President Bill Clinton decided that Kashmir was the “world’s most dangerous place”—a realisation that abruptly dawned after the nuclear tests of 1998—the quest for an India-Pakistan settlement has been transformed into a thriving cottage industry. Fuelled by a mixture of genuine concern and generous international patronage, an army of ‘strategic thinkers’, think-tankers, retired generals and diplomats and, of course, journalists have jumped into this 21st century variant of the Great Game. From international conferences to Track-II and people-to-people initiatives, a great deal of energy and resources has been expended in Aman ki Asha.
It would be needlessly cynical to debunk the active players in the IndPak chatter league as sub-continental counterparts of those George Orwell once described as “that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of ‘progress’ like bluebottles to a dead cat.” There may be a small minority of romantics for whom the ultimate ‘high’ is a meaningful exchange of recondite Urdu shairis with the like-minded across the Radcliffe Line or even a dying breed who look back wistfully at a genteel culture corrupted by either commerce or even religious orthodoxy. In the main, however, the IndPak engagement is not entirely bereft of hard-headedness and even realism.
The belief that 69 years of territorial antagonism, not to mention the longer period of political and cultural complications, will suddenly evaporate is essentially the prerogative of a shrinking generation that harbours happy memories of a united India. Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s fond hope of breakfast in Amritsar and lunch in Lahore was essentially a generational response of someone personally affected by Partition; it was a vision that, despite its nobility of purpose, failed to excite the popular imagination in either country. Seven decades may be a blip in human history but it is sufficiently long for shared memories to fade away.
Yes, there is a generation of young Indians and young Pakistanis who have shared memories of life in British or, more likely, American universities and friendships that are unaffected by cross-border tensions. Alas, a fraternity of cosmopolitans are powerless in the face of uninterrupted shelling across the Line of Control and terrorist attacks.
To be fair, the people who have acquired a stake in the IndPak engagement aren’t woolly-headed romantics. Most of them, with connections in the larger ‘strategic community’ don’t envisage an instant dawning of peace. The Indian players, most of whom are regulars in TV studios and the editorial pages of newspapers, are only too mindful of the complications arising from the overweight of the military in the Pakistan Establishment and the autonomous power of terror groups committed to jihad. Yet, despite this grounding in realism, they appear to have a commitment to what can loosely be called “uninterrupted and uninterruptable dialogue”, even if these fail to achieve anything tangible. Like academic contributions that are aimed exclusively at a peer group, the wordings of joint statements and non-papers have a special autonomous appeal, often quite unrelated to larger realities.
It is important to understand the exceptional importance attached to textual scrutiny by the ‘strategic community’, particularly those with a background of diplomacy, to get a sense of the fierce criticisms of the Narendra Modi government that followed last week’s cancellation of the talks between Ajit Doval and Sartaj Aziz, the National Security Advisers of India and Pakistan.
Broadly speaking, the attacks on the Modi government followed two streams. First, it was suggested that the Indian Prime Minister lacked any understanding or appreciation of the rules of diplomacy and was inclined to treat the IndPak game as an extension of confrontational domestic politics. The legacy of P.V. Narasimha Rao and Atal Behari Vajpayee was invoked to indicate alternative paths that Modi chose to not take. Secondly, it was argued that, unlike his predecessors, Modi reposed very little faith in the professional diplomats who are meant to conduct foreign policy. Instead, Modi was blamed for being intellectually over-dependant on the inputs of NSA Ajit Doval who, in turn, was decried for being a flat-footed policeman untutored in the ways of international diplomacy. Doval, in particular, was blamed for attaching needless importance to the Pakistan NSA’s planned meeting with an All Party Hurriyat Conference delegation—the same issue that had derailed the dialogue of Foreign Secretaries last year.
Whether or not India should have been more indulgent towards any Pakistan-Hurriyat meeting is an issue that is likely to divide the so-called experts and public opinion. For those who attach a great deal of importance to precedents, the proposed meeting had become a part of the Pakistani drill and there was little point turning the clock back and jeopardising a delicate process of dialogue. The government’s response that talks on terrorism couldn’t be enlarged by surreptitiously enlarging the agenda to include Kashmir is, however, worthy of consideration and more so since the Ufa agreement centred exclusively on terror.
However, at the heart of this divergence of views are two larger issues. First, the Ufa agreement was partially premised on the over-optimistic belief that India must do its bit in strengthening the hands of the civilian government vis a vis the military Establishment. As a general idea this may sound appealing but the reality is that the neither the Nawaz Sharif government nor India has the capacity to alter the balance of power inside Pakistan. Ufa was Sharif’s Sharm-el-Sheikh moment and there was an eerie inevitability that he would be tripped up by the military. Had India agreed to the subsequent terms set by Pakistan to include Kashmir in the dialogue on terror, it wouldn’t have strengthened the civilian government; it would have meekly caved in to the Pakistan military’s arm-twisting.
Secondly, the IndPak stakeholders proceed on the assumption that their business is to untangle a bilateral mess between two normal countries that have a shared love of cricket. Unfortunately, it could be a folly to regard Pakistan as ‘normal’. From its theft of nuclear technology and its role in generating counterfeit currency to its encouragement and export of terror, Pakistan has violated every rule in the book. On top of that, as Vajpayee discovered in 1999, it has a strong perfidious streak. There can be no question of any asymmetric relationship with it; it has to be judged with exceptional stringency. This may be what distinguishes the Doval approach from the earlier government’s endeavour to bring Pakistan to normal existence. Accepting as ‘normal’ its right to engage with players inside Jammu and Kashmir carried with it a corresponding danger of conceding to it a right in the internal affairs of India.
In the past week, the Modi government has drawn a set of new red lines for Pakistan. This by itself is not contentious—considering its shoddy record of waging both direct and proxy war. The real test will lie in India’s ability to persist with its new approach without either blinking or succumbing to pressure. In the coming months, Pakistan will redouble both military and diplomatic pressure to restore the linkages between terror and ‘self-determination’ for Jammu and Kashmir. By resisting this, India will have to be prepared for prolonged non-engagement. The combination of deterrence and ‘benign neglect’ may suit India but it will put the IndPak industry out of business for a long time to come. That, maybe, is the sustained internal pressure that the government will have to withstand. Hell hath no fury that experts spurned!