Friday 27 September 2013

Beijing-Delhi-Islamabad: Future partners? (PO)

MD Nalapat
Friday, September 27, 2013 - As expected, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will be meeting both US President Barack Obama as well as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. As earlier mentioned in these columns, the two meetings are linked, in that Washington made no secret of its view that a Singh-Sharif meeting would be helpful. The (presumably unspoken) codicil to that bit of advice was that a Singh-Obama meeting would be much more productive were India’s PM to also meet with his Pakistan counterpart.

The meeting with Nawaz Sharif will have political consequences for Manmohan Singh, as the opposition BJP is certain to question the need for such a get-together. Both the Congress Party as well as the BJP are known for changing their views dramatically, depending on whether they are out of office or in power. It was BJP Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee who adopted a policy towards Pakistan which was more friendly than that of any other PM except for Morarji Desai (1977-79) and I K Gujral (1997). Vajpayee took the now famous bus journey to Lahore, and was eager to arrive at a settlement of outstanding issues when Pervez Musharraf’s Kargil brainchild erupted. The Indian establishment was caught by surprise at the occupation by Pakistan formations of several posts in the Kargil area.

The Chief of the Army Staff, General Ved Prakash Malik, was in Poland on what was essentially a holiday while the commanding officer of that sector was more interested in setting up a golf course than in improving defensive capability. However, all such lapses were swept under the carpet as Vajpayee was eager to trumpet a success which was expected to – and did - give his party victory in the 1999 parliamentary elections. Had there been no Kargil conflict, the Congress Party would almost certainly have returned to power in 1999 rather than having to wait another five years. Small wonder that Vajpayee swiftly recognized General Musharraf after the coup against Nawaz Sharif which brought the Army chief into power Not talking to those having views different from one’s own is almost never a good tactic, and Manmohan Singh deserves credit for taking the politically costly step of engaging his counterpart from Pakistan in a dialogue. Breakthroughs are unlikely, because the fact is that the peace process between India and Pakistan has been made the hostage of terror groups active in both countries.

Each time there is a terror attack in Pakistan, more than a few fingers get pointed towards India, a stance that is reciprocated whenever there is a mass terror attack in India. What is needed is to give both countries a greater stake in each other’s prosperity, and this means that trade in goods and services should expand across the border. At the same time, the media in both countries ought to be made easily accessible on both sides, so that well-known Pakistan television sitcoms can be savoured by audiences in India and vice versa.

Whatever be the faults and mistakes of Pervez Musharraf (and this columnist has pointed out several of them), the reality is that it was under his watch that civil society in Pakistan began to regain the spirit and the strength that it had in the petiod before General Zia-ul-Haq sought to replace local societal mores with the values and attitudes prevailing in Saudi Arabia. The media in Pakistan, both press and broadcast, is considerably more vibrant than its counterparts in India, where several senior journalists still suffer from the hangover of the 1980s,acting as though the world and their country has not changed since then. There is a disconnect between such attitudes and the reality of change in civil society in India, and it is time that mediapersons in India stopped looking at Big Government as the natural way of existence and asked for a more equitable devolution of powers between government and people.

If General Musharraf helped transform Pakistan civil society so that for the first time, conservative elements feel challenged, it was Asif Ali Zardari who made his own contribution towards the deepening of democracy in Pakistan by serving out a full term in office and handing over responsibility to a political rival. Former President Zardari is still regarded with affection in India for being the first senior politician in Pakistan to say that peace with India should trump endless bickering over the disputes which continue to fester between Islamabad and Delhi. Unfortunately, Zardari was given zero backing by the Obama administration, which consistently sided with those opposed to him. As a consequence, he was unable to replicate the success of Turkey’s Recip Tayyep Erdogan in establishing the supremacy of the civilian administration over the military.

A purely military view of relations between two countries seldom generates a positive momentum for reconciliation, and so it has proved between India and Pakistan, where the question of borders has swatted away all other issues into the wastepaper basket. A similar situation exists between India and China as well, where the border issue dominates dialogue between two countries with huge commonalities. This columnist has long held the view that those who say that the India-Pakistan and India-China border issues should be settled before any partnership takes place between the two sides is to place the cart before the horse. The border issue will only get settled once overall trust and mutual cooperation in varied fields expands to levels far higher than they are at present.

In the same way as Asif Zardari,Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was sincere in his desire for conciliation between both sides. Certainly there are powerful groups on both sides that gain from conflict. However, the overall national interest of India, China and Pakistan mandate the establishment of collaborative structures between them. Repeated terror attacks have taken away the probability that Delhi and Islamabad will come to a political settlement during the remaining months of Manmohan Singh’s second term in office. However, whoever be Singh’s successor, she or he will need to show to the Pakistan side that the people of both countries gain not from war but from peace.

Not from conflict but from conciliation. Soon after his return from New York, the Prime Minister of India flies to Beijing.There too, he will be looking at creating a legacy of peace, such as was envisaged by Rajiv Gandhi and Deng Xiaoping in 1988. In such an effort, there will be those who seek total alignment between India and NATO who will seek to sabotage any putative Sino-Indian thaw. Sadly, experience has shown that the saboteurs of peace in all three countries almost always carry the day over their more constructive counterparts, and so it is likely to remain between Delhi, Islamabad and Beijing.

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