Thursday, July 30, 2009




    Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's statement in Parliament clarifying his position on the Indo-Pak Joint Statement issued at Sharm-el-Sheikh has laid out both his vision for the region as well as his frustration in dealing with Pakistan. Much of what Dr Singh said in Parliament is unexceptionable. Not only did he lay out a tentative roadmap for future relations between India and Pakistan, he also stuck to the basic policy framework that India had devised after the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai. The only problem is that the text of the Joint Statement runs counter to everything that the Prime Minister said in Parliament. But rather than splitting hairs over this disconnect between the spoken and written word, perhaps it makes more sense to try and see how Dr Singh's vision can translate into something tangible.

    The biggest obstacle to peace in South Asia is the deep hostility and hatred for India among very influential and powerful sections of the Pakistani military, bureaucracy and political establishment. While this self-created and self-serving perception of India as the enemy has little, if any, basis in reality, over the years this manufactured sentiment has seeped into the minds of the common people of Pakistan who harbor enormous distrust and suspicion of India. One glaring manifestation of this is that the Pakistan army and people are being motivated to fight the Taliban for no other reason except that the Pakistani Taliban are alleged to be agents of India! Even in the restive province of Balochistan, a similar tack has been adopted to mobilize public opinion against the Baloch nationalists and separatists. Clearly, the Pakistani establishment feels that nothing unites their country more than hatred for India, which can then be easily exploited and channeled into an unquestioned public support for any military operation.

Interestingly, just as Pakistan perceives India as a mortal enemy, Indians too have a very lurid image of Pakistan. Like most Pakistanis, who instinctively believe that India has not accepted or reconciled to the creation of Pakistan, the Indians are equally convinced that it is in fact Pakistan that has been indulging in a strategy of 'death by a thousand cuts' to grievously damage, and if possible destroy, India. According to the Indians it is Pakistan that refuses to reconcile to the existence of India, and not vice-versa. The big difference in the common perceptions that the peoples of the two countries have of each other is that while India has been experiencing malevolence emanating from Pakistan in the form of terrorism, Pakistan is hurling nothing more than manufactured accusations of a similar evil intent on part of India.

Given these mutually hostile perceptions that exist in both countries, it is no surprise that relations between the two South Asian neighbors have been structured as a zero-sum game. The zero-sum game is reflected even in the idiom that is used by the two countries. For instance, the Pakistanis often say that durable peace is not possible without a solution to Kashmir. But surely, it is not only India that desperately wants peace because if this is the case then even if Kashmir is solved, there will be no peace; and if Pakistan too has a stake in peace then it must evaluate if it is willing to wait for peace until Kashmir is solved or whether it values peace enough to put Kashmir on the backburner.

This zero-sum game is the reason why all attempts made in the past to normalize bilateral relations failed quite miserably. And the future state of bilateral relations will end the same way unless there is a change in the way in which the people and establishments of the two countries see each other. That is to say, unless the zero-sum game changes into a positive sum game in which the success of one country is also the success of the other country and both have a stake in each others' success, all the noble intentions and sentiments that both Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Asif Zardari have been expressing will come to nought.

Of course, changing the game from zero-sum to positive sum is easier said than done. At this point in time it is probably nothing more than a utopian idea. But if this idea has ever to be realized, then the first step in that direction is a strategic dialogue between India and Pakistan. This is a dialogue that goes far beyond the rather desultory composite dialogue that has been underway for the past few years and is currently suspended. Despite its seemingly comprehensive nature, the composite dialogue process has run its course and served its purpose, which was to start a sort of structured dialogue between the two countries that would include all issues and matters of interest and dispute between them.

While there is no harm if the composite dialogue is resumed sometime in the future, it would be unrealistic to imagine that something substantial can ever emerge from this process. If truth be told, the composite dialogue cannot ever work simply because the paradigm under which it is operating militates against any serious search for middle ground to resolve disputes, much less provide any incentive for resolving issues. Under this paradigm the objective is to get something without giving anything i.e. zero-sum game.

What is needed therefore is to take the dialogue process to a higher level, where politicians from across the political spectrum of both countries (excluding the loonies) engage each other in a strategic dialogue which focuses beyond immediate disputes (even core disputes) and seeks to first lay down the framework of ties between the two countries. In other words, the political leaderships in the two countries need to work out the basis of their relationship, where they want to go in their bilateral relationship, how do they see their bilateral relationship develop over the next fifty years, and what are they willing to do and how far are they willing to go to ensure that such a relationship becomes a reality.

Chances are that in looking at the larger picture, territorial disputes and/or ideological barriers will tend to lose their salience and hence become more amenable to solutions. At the same time such a dialogue will also try to ensure that both countries become sensitive to the concerns of each other. This means that India doesn't have to undercut Pakistan in Afghanistan nor does Pakistan have to feel threatened by Indian presence in Afghanistan. Similarly, Pakistan doesn't feel the need to use Nepal or Bangladesh to sponsor trouble in India or try to counter India by using China.

This is where it will become imperative to have alongside a political dialogue, a parallel military level dialogue as also a regular interaction between the intelligence agencies and the two foreign offices. This becomes even more important because unless the strategic worldviews of both countries are brought into conjunction, and they are ready for a grand strategic bargain, it is highly unlikely if they will ever be able to normalize their relations. To be sure, there will be a lot of resistance to the armies and intelligence agencies interacting with each other. There will also be major setbacks. But at the end of the day the political and permanent establishments are far more relevant people than do-gooders who masquerade as civil society but actually count for nothing in terms of their ability to deliver anything.

(The writer is consultant to the IDSA)


    <1250 Words>                    30th July, 2009



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