Friday, September 12, 2008




    In his very first press conference as President of Pakistan, Asif Zardari promised his countrymen that they will soon hear 'good news' on the Kashmir issue. Quite aside the fact that Pakistani politicians routinely tantalise the media by promising 'good news' on one issue or another, Zardari's 'good news' on Kashmir might eventually be nothing more than opening up of trade routes along the line of control in Jammu and Kashmir or some other Kashmir-related confidence building measures between India and Pakistan.

    It must however be said that new civilian dispensation is Islamabad has made all the right noises and moves as far as pushing the peace process with India is concerned. President Zardari's take on relations with India, laid out in his interviews and statements after his party formed the government in Pakistan, is both realistic and visionary. The PPP-led government has unveiled a very progressive trade policy which grants India the 'Most Favoured Nation' (MFN) status in all but name. The Pakistani side is also open to the idea of inviting investments from Indian corporate houses. Indian investments will not only bolster Pakistan's industrial sector, but will also be a huge vote of confidence in Pakistan's faltering economy. The signalling impact of Indian investment in Pakistan will be far more effective in attracting international corporations to invest in Pakistan than any IMF-World Bank program. Apart from investment and trade, the Pakistani side appears keen to open travel between the two countries and encourage greater contacts between the peoples of the two countries.

    The task of the Pakistan government has been made somewhat simpler by the fact that at least at the political level it does not face any major opposition to its overtures to India. Not only coalition partners like ANP, JUI and MQM but also the biggest opposition party, PMLN, favour normalisation of relations with India. While the extreme right wing Jamaat Islami and Jihadi groups continue to oppose any rapprochement with India, they are today far too marginalised to be an effective obstacle in the path of the peace process. Businessmen, professionals, and civil society groups, are also looking forward to an era of peace and cooperation with India.

    But despite all these positives, there are disturbing signs that things might just go back to the no-war-no-peace situation of the past. The political consensus on peace with India is still very fragile and can easily break down under mounting pressure from elements within the military establishment who have not been able to shed their inveterate hatred for India. The growing disconnect between the political leadership and the military on the issue of relations with India will be the ultimate test of both President Asif Zardari's ability to side-step political minefields and his stated commitment on ushering in an era of friendship and cooperation between India and Pakistan.

    Already an insidious propaganda campaign has been launched inside Pakistan against India. Unsubstantiated allegations about Indian involvement in the insurgency in Balochistan and in Islamist terror attacks in other parts of Pakistan have been flying around in the Pakistani media. Quite clearly, the Pakistani media is being fed all these stories by the psy-war experts in the Pakistani intelligence establishment. Despite these clearly motivated and quite ridiculous allegations flying in the face of all logic, they are being unquestioningly gobbled up and then peddled as truisms by Pakistani media professionals. No doubt, India must be using its presence in Afghanistan to keep a close eye on developments inside Pakistan. This is exactly what any serious country would do. But to construe from this that India is using the Taliban to wreck havoc inside Pakistan is to stretch the limits of credulity.

    The Indian presence in Afghanistan, a red rag for Islamists, Jihadists and 'strategic depth' theoreticians in the Pakistani establishment, is now being used by them to whip up the mood against India. India is supposed to be maintaining 13 consulates – this is the latest figure conjured up by the fertile imagination of Pakistani cold warriors – but no one in Pakistan has until now listed where these missions are located. The funding of the Pakistani Taliban, their logistic support, their selection of targets, their training and brainwashing, everything is being ascribed to India. The reconstruction efforts of India in Afghanistan – roads, schools, hospitals, supply of transport equipment, building communication facilities, constructing dams, training the Afghan National Army – is all seen in Pakistan as part of an Indian effort to encircle Pakistan. To counter India's growing profile in Afghanistan, Pakistan has kept alive the Taliban option and used it keep Afghanistan destabilised.

Other than Afghanistan, the Kashmir issue too will come handy in sabotaging any political initiative by the PPP-led coalition to improve ties with India. The deteriorating political situation inside Jammu and Kashmir where the separatists and jihadists have once again become very active will give an excuse to the Pakistani military establishment to once again raise domestic political temperature on the issue. Any move by the authorities in J&K to counter the separatists will be blown up out of proportion and presented to the Pakistani public as atrocities being committed on 'hapless Muslims'. Of course, Pakistan's own actions against Islamist and Baloch insurgents – use of jet fighters, helicopter gunships, tanks and heavy artillery – will be conveniently brushed under the carpet while painting India in lurid colours. The thrust of the entire campaign will be to apprise the Pakistani public of the perfidy of the PPP-led government which it will be said is doing business with India even though India is 'butchering the Kashmiris', sponsoring terrorism inside Pakistan and destabilising the Pakistani state.

The big question is how the government of President Zardari reacts when this stage is reached and unbearable pressure is put on the government to give up its policy of rapprochement with India. Will Mr Zardari be able to resist this pressure? He has shown tremendous capacity for standing up to pressure – from the media, the public, the civil society, his political allies and from within his own party – on the issue of restoration of the deposed judiciary. But India is an altogether different ball game because on this issue he will have to fend of charges of being 'anti-national', a 'security risk' and a 'Indian, American or Zionist agent' – charges that were also heaped on his wife when she was prime minister. The opposition PMLN, in deference to its right-wing, conservative and reactionary core constituency will not be averse to using Kashmir as an issue to put the government on the mat. Even worse, the PPP might be deserted by crucial allies on this issue, something that will bring the government down.

To avoid the collapse of its government, it is possible that Zardari and Co. adopt a parallel track approach with India. In other words, the Pakistanis might cooperate and improve their relations with India in some areas and at the same time confront India in other areas, notably Afghanistan and Kashmir. If this happens then the ball will be firmly in India's court and everything will then depend on how India reacts to acts of provocation from Pakistan. Broadly India will have to choose one of two options: India can play the Pakistani game and choose to cooperate where possible, and retaliate where necessary; or India can stop dealing with Pakistan until it ends interference in Kashmir and stops sponsoring jihadi groups spreading terror in rest of India. Both these options are a classic case of 'been there, done that'. Therefore, instead of waiting for 'good news', perhaps India should prepare for the 'bad news' which is inevitable.


    <1275 Words>                    12th September, 2008




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