Sunday, September 9, 2012

Indo-Pak Relations: Glass Half Full

There is an urgent need to create ‘shock-absorbers’ in India-Pakistan relations


Will the ongoing visit of India’s foreign minister S. M. Krishna to Pakistan make any difference to India-Pakistan relations? Can the Indian foreign minister,who belongs to an embattled UPA government, take the ongoing efforts to strengthen the bilateral relationship to the next logical level? Or will Krishna’s ‘mission Pakistan’ prove to be yet another futile exercise? I think the glass is half full. 

Minister Krishna is scheduled to meet (or has already met) a host of Pakistani leaders from both the ruling party as well as the opposition. This by itself, I think, is a progressive step. The fact is that if New Delhi wants to deepen its relations with Pakistan, it should reach out to Pakistanis belonging to a wide spectrum of political persuasions. Secondly, the revival of the Indo-Pak Joint Commission and its subgroups can do a lot of good for Indo-Pak relations. The Joint Commission has often been a victim of the imponderables between the two sides. Thirdly, my ‘glass is half full’ optimism also comes from the great deal of diplomatic effort that has gone into strengthening the Indo-Pak bilateral environment in the past year or so. From the parlays between the home secretaries to the commerce and the foreign secretaries, there have been a number of Indo-Pak official engagements in the past yearand these in a sense have managed to deepen the relationship and create a certain sense of purpose and vision, at least from an instrumental point of view. One only hopes that the diplomatic effort of the past one year, including this visit by Krishna and his delegation, is taken to a higher level by a visit by Dr. Manmohan Singh to Islamabad sometime soon. 

It is interesting to note that while New Delhi and Islamabad have been making politically correct noises about the ‘K’ (Kashmir) word and the ‘T’ (Terrorism) word, the apparent lack of progress on these two items has not prompted either party to call off the dialogue process. While I do not believe that not talking about contentious issues is not the perfect way to resolve them, I am willing to see some merit in carefully planning and timing the discussion on contentious issues. Sometimes diplomacy is all about timing. 

Critics would argue that this is yet another round of talks without any real and tangible result in sight, and hence these talks are as good as not having them at all. India and Pakistan are simply going through the motions of a dialogue process, half-hearted as it is, and may achieve almost nothing at the end of it, they would argue. For instance, but for some improvement at the trade front, what have all these diplomatic engagement s of the past one year produced? Nothing, really.

I do see their point: you need to work towards concrete outcomes in a purposeful manner. And yet, I am persuaded by the thinking that sometimes process is itself the product. Often, there is a need to engage your ‘adversary’ at multiple ‘peaceful’ levels to create the atmospherics to negotiate lasting peace. After all, it is better to be talking to each other peacefully and graciously, even when there is not tangible outcome in sight, than working to sabotage each other.  Finally, the fact is that India has simply no other choice than to diplomatically and politically engage Pakistan? Does it really have any other alternative vis-à-vis Pakistan? 

The imponderables 
To me, however, what is bothering is not really the lack of concrete outcomes from the dialogue process, but the potential of the ‘imponderables’ to frustrate the peace process. Indeed, India-Pakistan relations have always been a victim of such imponderables: what else can explain the overnight disappearance of the 2004-2008 India-Pakistan peace process which was widely termed as ‘irreversible’? 

The first imponderable, of course, is a repeat of 26/11. While one hopes that such an instance won’t take place, there is no way one can rule it out. What a Mumbai-II will mean for Indo-Pak relations is something only time can tell. One thing, however, is certain. It will ‘at least’ mean a repeat of what followed the 26/11 terror attacks, that is, the end of the Indo-Pak peace process. The second imponderable is a regime change in Pakistan. What will be the fate of this engagement process between the two sides if and when there is a regime change in Islamabad? And what if the new regime in Pakistan is less forthcoming towards India than the present one? Thirdly, what will be the impact of the evolving ‘endgame’ in Afghanistan on Indo-Pak relations? Indeed, on all these three ‘imponderables’, we have a historical record to go by and that record is not something that can make us optimistic about the future of Indo-Pak relations. 

I would, therefore, argue that instead of trying hard to rule out potential wildcards such as these, there is a need to think of ways to deal with them as and when they occur with minimum damage to the bilateral relations. Differently put, there is an urgent need to create ‘shock-absorbers’ in India-Pakistan relations so as to not let the unforeseen effects of unfortunate imponderables throw them off balance. The exact nature of these political and diplomatic shock absorbers are to be designed by the officials on both sides. But some of the steps in this direction could already be taken. For instance, institutionalization of regular exchange of views between the two intelligence communities, like it used to be the case between the two superpowers during the Cold War years, is one way doing it. It’s time India and Pakistan put on their ‘thinking caps’ and did some out-of-the-box thinking about it.

(Source: Greater Kashmir, September 9, 2012. URL: )

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