Monday, September 28, 2009

Indo-Pak Relations: Can India Leverage on Zardari’s Candidness?

At a meeting with retired federal secretaries and bureaucrats a couple of weeks back, the President of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari reportedly said: “Militants and extremists emerged on the national scene and challenged the State not because the civil bureaucracy was weakened and demoralized but because they were deliberately created and nurtured as a policy to achieve some short-term tactical objectives.”

Such candid admission by a civilian authority in Pakistan is certainly fraught with the risk of antagonizing its all-powerful military, besides, of course, stirring up a hornets’ nest— alienating the right-wing religious zealots farther from the mainstream politics—but the fact that it has been made clearly establishes the state of its political confidence. And interestingly, no ‘denial’ has followed, except, of course, for an explanatory attempt.

Indeed, it is not the first time for Zardari to make such outof- the-box statements: he is Pakistan’s first head of the state to promise a “no-first-nuclear-strike” policy against India. He also made it plain once that he does not carry any of the old ideological baggage, particularly, with regard to India. There is no doubt that the ongoing military action in Swat against Taliban, and particularly, the public support for it, despite huge displacement of population and the accompanying troubles, make one believe that whether there is US pressure or not, Pakistan has ultimately accepted the need for halting further advances of Taliban into their country.

Now, the question is: Would it mean a reversal of its past policy and acceptance of the fact that the threat to Pakistan is emanating from within rather than from across the border? No definite answer can perhaps be given to this question, for history categorically states that when it comes to dealing with Pakistan, it is a tad more complex. Even otherwise, weeding out extremism is not going to be that easy for Pakistan, particularly in view of its deeply entrenched relationship with the establishment, that too for this long, and the complexities thereof.

Nonetheless, these remarks make one wonder if the time is ripe for India and Pakistan to cease thinking of themselves as ‘enemies’, and instead, as Ashutosh Varshney suggested sometime back, to think of themselves as ‘adversaries’, for adversaries “can be respected, even admired,” which means competing “vigorously to become better than the other”—what indeed matters most for the common man on both sides of the ‘divide’—while enemies are destined to get killed.

There are quite a few other but critical reasons as to why India and Pakistan cannot afford to be enemies, the first and the most important being: both are suffering from endemic poverty. Both are nuclear-armed. Both are suffering from one kind or the other of internal insurgencies. At the same time, both are spending huge sums on military buildup. And such huge expenditure on defense obviously eats into developmental programs. The stakes are thus quite high for both sides.

However, if peace in the region is to be established and if the countries are to focus on growth and prosperity, what is required of India is not to issue statements such as what India’s External Affairs Minister S M Krishna said in Rajyasabha: “With the confession from the highest authority in Pakistan, India stands vindicated … I hope hereafter Pakistan will make a determined bid to curb terrorism. It can’t be fought selectively but has to be combated across the board, because those encouraging it can become victims. This is my subtle caution to them.” Instead, it must display statesmanship and a well-crafted policy that can strengthen this newfound realism in Pakistan and enable the Pakistani leadership to take it forward, while at the same time not giving a chance to its right-wing groups to accuse its leadership of submitting itself to the dictates of the Indian Government.

Also, India must bear in mind what Raja Mohan, Professor of South Asian Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, said: today, many of our “national security and foreign policy priorities come together in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.” But post-Mumbai terror attacks, our foreign policy approach towards engaging Pakistan appears to have acquired a dark edge, as is often reflected in the statements of political leadership, such as “terror infrastructure has to be dismantled” and “perpetrators of terrorism have to be brought to justice,” if India has to resume talks with Pakistan.

Sadly, such statements prove how right B Raman, the Indian Security Affairs Analyst, is, who, when asked for his comments by the India/South Asia Bureau Chief of The Straits Times of Singapore, said: “We have no culture of strategic- thinking and laser-sharp analysis based on cruel facts and figures. But we have a long-ingrained culture of wishful thinking.” A strategic integrated look at all this makes a case for India to be “more optimistic and even opportunistic” in its approach to the Af-Pak region. Indeed, to set the log on roll, India must first aim at settling lesser issues like Sir Creek dispute. It should even be bold enough to shed its known shibboleths and use American weight—the country that is currently showing extraordinary interest the Af-Pak region—on Pakistan to produce long-term structural changes within Pakistan and in its relationship with India. In any case, India must act to leverage on Zardari’s candidness, for its growth prospects are highly dependent on the stability in its neighborhood.

– GRK Murty

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