Room to play

The shadow of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks in 2008 continues to loom over India-Pakistan parleys. At Sharm el-Sheikh in 2009, on the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Summit, both the countries tried to delink through ingenious drafting Pakistani action on terror networks and 26/11 perpetrators from resumption of composite dialogue.

They have chosen to simply disguise the talks as chance encounters. Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and Yousaf Raza Gilani met at Mohali last year while watching a T-20 Cricket World Cup semi-final. Now a luncheon stop-over by Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari before proceeding to Ajmer Sharif for spiritual solace and divine blessings is summitry as pilgrimage.
Addressing the media, Dr Singh revealed that they had discussed all issues and he was satisfied with, following an awkward stutter, the visit. Foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai, in a follow-up briefing, explained that while Pakistan focused on Sir Creek, Siachen and Kashmir, India reiterated the need to prosecute terror sponsors. Both sides were satisfied over progress in trade and visa liberalisation. It appears that about 20 issues debated since the 1988 Rajiv Gandhi-Benazir Bhutto talks, which in 1998 had been clubbed into a composite dialogue and thus expected to be dealt with simultaneously, had now been detached for separate handling, thus ensuring that the more intractable issues did not block the rest. The erstwhile composite dialogue is now called a dialogue process. This is classic dispute resolution through calibrated confidence-building, picking first the low-hanging fruit before ascending higher. It used to be Pakistan that insisted that Kashmir had to be resolved first. The question that arises is: why this change of heart?
Pilgrim Zardari seemed to have prepared well for his journey as he consulted with the Army Chief, Gen. Ashraf Kayani, before embarking. The impression is being conveyed that the calibrated normalisation of trade and commerce, transitioning towards de facto grant of most favoured nation status by Pakistan to India, and liberalisation of the visa regime that home minister P. Chidambaram had mindlessly tightened after the David Headley breach came to light, have the blessings of the Pakistani military. The three issues that Mr Zardari fielded are all dear to the Pakistani military’s heart. Did he raise them, accepting their tackling in different time frames, or was he seeking quid pro quo concessions like Zulfiqar Bhutto at Simla in 1972?
It is difficult to believe that the Pakistani Army has had a collective epiphany. Ahmad Rashid, in his book Pakistan on the Brink, the final work of a trilogy on the Taliban and the radicalisation of Pakistan, relates the naive understanding by the Pakistani Army of the causes of this radicalisation, which it attributes to the US presence in Afghanistan, the funding of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan by India and the US and the desire of the US to seize Pakistan’s nuclear assets. They also surmise that following the US’ withdrawal, all suicide bombings should end and peace prevail. Rashid separately charts the core belief system of the Army as resting on resisting perceived Indian hegemony, protecting and expanding their nuclear arsenal, Kashmir, and, finally, ensuring a pro-Pakistan government in Kabul. One would have to be extremely gullible to imagine that such deep-rooted animosity and moral aberrations can dissipate overnight. Thus, caution has to be the watchword in moving forward.
Undoubtedly, Mr Zardari has been consistent in his desire to normalise relations with India, as indeed has been Dr Singh. Both leaders, however, confront challenging domestic political environments. Mr Zardari faces a determined onslaught from the Pakistani Supreme Court as the countdown has already begun to the next National Assembly election in less than a year. Dr Singh is, by all accounts, in his last term, whether the Congress returns or not in the next general elections which are appearing likely even before they are due in early 2014. Both governments are dogged by corruption-related activism stemming from the superior courts. While the Indian economy has survived the turbulence of the financial crisis, Pakistan grew last year at 2.6 per cent. Pakistan also has its IMF repayments commencing this year. The traditional saviour has been the US, with which its relations are currently tenuous. While the Chinese have funnelled military assistance into and undertaken infrastructure development in Pakistan, they have never given direct financial aid. Is this economic vulnerability driving the Army to let the civilian government normalise relations with India?
This is being played out against the backdrop of the unravelling of US-Pakistan relations. The fissures were older but in 2011, first with the Raymond Davis affair in Lahore and then Osama bin Laden’s killing in Abbottabad on May 1, mutual trust was shattered. The final break came with the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers on the Durand Line by Nato forces in November and the attendant blockage by Pakistan of the supply corridor, ejecting of the US from the Shamsi air base and curtailment of visas to US representatives. Ahmad Rashid relates the so-far unknown beginning of US contact with the Taliban in Germany on November 28, 2010, shared with Pakistan only in May/June of 2011. Pakistani paranoia over being ignored exploded in the arrest and intimidation of senior functionaries of the Taliban, like Mullah Baradar. Their calculation about the post-US scheme of things in Afghanistan was imploding in their face. Pakistan had obviously overplayed its hand in dealing with the US. Is this also why the civilian government is given more room to play with India?
Another major terror attack in India or divergence in Indian and Pakistani interests as the endgame commences in Afghanistan could act as a spoiler. Equally critical is the outcome of the US presidential election. US President Barack Obama has shown clinical ruthlessness in assessing and punishing the Pakistan Army’s duplicity in the war on terror. His advisers, like Bruce Riedel, are talking of steps to contain the Pakistani Army. Similarly Mr Obama has developed a sophisticated approach to Afghanistan, where the “disrupt, dismantle and defeat” motto has been replaced by the Hillary Clinton dictum “talk, fight and build”. Normally turning points are also moments of vulnerability, when the radicals cast their dice in desperation. Are we at another inflection point or is this another mirage? Only time will tell.

The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry

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