Indo-Pak ties: Let the parleys begin

As India elects a new President, Pakistan’s PPP-led government faces fresh deadlines.

Today, the Supreme Court of Pakistan will examine the constitutionality of the contempt law passed by the National Assembly, which exempts the ministers from the Supreme Court’s intrusive interference in the executive’s functioning. Two days later the same court will seek a yes/no answer only to whether the new Prime Minster is ready to write to the Swiss authorities to re-open the case against President Asif Ali Zardari. The gun is loaded and aimed at the heart of the Pakistani government as the holy month of Ramzan commences.
These developments were expected; then why the contrived bonhomie during India-Pakistan foreign secretary-level talks two weeks back? It is learnt that the Indian mission in Islamabad had already been alerted to a possible visit by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh around September. Last week the electronic media went into paroxysm over two developments: the resumption of cricketing ties with Pakistan and the possible lifting of the ban on Pakistani television channels in India.
The decision to host Pakistan’s cricket team for three one-day matches and two masala T20s was clearly a political one inserted as they were during a busy winter season and despite the Abu Jundal confessions which underscored Pakistani complicity. Soon after this a Pakistani anti-terror court rejected the evidence collected by the Pakistani judicial commission, which had visited India, arguing that the witnesses who deposed had not been cross-examined. Surely this lacuna should have been obvious to the legal luminaries of the two sides when settling the ground rules, unless the two foreign offices in their enthusiasm to move the diplomatic parleys forward papered over the finer legal points.
The proposal to lift the ban on Pakistani television channels raises a few issues. India must adopt a calibrated approach. The ban on entertainment channels should be lifted as the shared experience of human drama can be a vital bridge across a politically fractured continent. An empathetic reconnection is the first step towards a healing of old hurts and new prejudices. Opening the door to news channels and analytical programmes is another matter. Two or more decades ago, when electronic media was in state hands in both countries, the focus was on curbing toxic propaganda. With the profusion of private channels, Pakistan having around 150 of which about a quarter are news channels, the dissonance in the narratives on the two sides may inflame public opinion. This area could be slowly opened to those willing to voluntarily accept a curb on provocative posturing.
Suddenly the narrative on Pakistan is shifting. Last week a national English news channel quoting unnamed official sources suggested that the Prime Minister was unlikely to visit Pakistan this year. Is there a re-think on the merits per se or a realisation that the Pakistani government is likely to exit? In India, too, allies are signalling impatience ranging from Mamata Banerjee’s distressed support to the UPA presidential nominee, Mayawati’s escape from corruption charge under the Supreme Court’s benediction, Mulayam Singh’s confused vote for the NDA’s presidential nominee and now the replay of the great Maratha uprising by Bollywood’s master of the plots, Sharad Pawar.
Imtiaz Gul, a sensible Pakistani columnist, wrote recently that the Pakistani elite and even the military may be moving away from the twin doctrines of parity with India and strategic depth in Afghanistan. A sensible response would be to gradually test it rather than attempt a grand bargain based on untested assumptions, as India did in Simla in 1972. There is also a need to reconfigure the old agenda, bandied for two decades, christened the composite dialogue. The government itself has, post-26/11, started calling it talks rather than resumed dialogue. The emphasis can be on creating mutual dependencies as a form of confidence building. For instance, while Pakistan could make concessions in the fields of trade and transit, India could begin providing Pakistan power and refined petroleum products. Similarly, Pakistan’s challenge is to generate employment for its burgeoning population which otherwise gets drawn to radical groups. Could India envision industrial free zones abutting the India-Pakistan border, with investment even coming from the Gulf countries, open to labour from either end? These zones could have connectivity to the high-speed freight corridor that India is developing between New Delhi and Mumbai. On issues like Siachen, Pakistan needs to be told that progress will be slow as the trust deficit between India and China also affects its outcome. Matters like Sir Creek need to be finessed or referred to international adjudication.
In the Pew Attitudes Survey 2012, in Pakistan only 22 per cent people have a positive view of India. Those holding a negative opinion have been rising from 48 per cent in 2009 to 53 per cent, 57 per cent and 59 per cent in the next three years. It may be interesting to note that those favouring the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba in the last three years have been 25 per cent, 27 per cent and 22 per cent, while those against it were 35 per cent, 37 per cent and 37 per cent. These figures strengthen the Indian argument that the LeT flourishes not due to mass support but endorsement by the security establishment.
Thus, India-Pakistan relations have to await the outcomes of electoral cycles in both countries. Z. Brzezinski, former US national security adviser, warns that professional diplomats “tend to confuse diplomacy with foreign policy”. The former is a technique, the latter a political vision shaped by history, ideology and national aspirations. Has the government got the mix of these two right on India-Pakistan relations? The nation can only guess, as the government does not tell, and worse, the Opposition does not enquire.

The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry

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