Possibilities of redemption

There is a new moment in Pakistan. India must build on it

Written by Ashutosh Varshney | Published: May 21, 2013 12:19 am

There is a new moment in Pakistan. India must build on it

What do the recent elections in Pakistan mean for India? Should India approach the re-emergence of Nawaz Sharif with an abundance of caution,or with a bias for hope?

The answer depends on how one views politics. Is politics,especially among adversaries,always a prisoner of history? Or,can politics also create new opportunities?

The argument that a dark shadow of history inevitably colours the India-Pakistan relationship has a long and distinguished lineage. Scholars have often linked Indo-Pak relations to the deeper problems of Pakistan’s national identity. It is worth recalling why.

Pakistan was born out of the two-nation theory. As Mohammed Ali Jinnah,the father of Pakistan,famously put it in the Lahore Resolution of 1940: “Islam and Hinduism… belong to two different civilisations which are based mainly on conflicting ideas and conceptions… They have different epics,(and) their heroes are different… Very often,the hero of one is the foe of the other and likewise their victories and defeats overlap.” Thus,Hindus and Muslims constituted two different nations,calling for two separate states.

The two-nation theory never witnessed a neat and happy denouement. Islam could not weave together the linguistic diversity of Pakistan. In 1971-72,the break-up of the nation,when East Pakistanis emphasised their Bengali,not Muslim,identity and became the new nation of Bangladesh,was a bloody reminder of this problem. Since the 1970s,the Baloch insurgency,emphasising ethnic distinctiveness,has also not quite gone away.

India has had its share of insurgencies,but even at the worst moment,1989-91,not more than 5 per cent of the nation was directly affected. East Pakistan,in contrast,had more than half of Pakistan’s population at the time of secession.

Moreover,the question of who is a Muslim has never been answered to the satisfaction of all. The Ahmadis,the Shia,the Sufis have all been targets of violent attacks for not being proper Muslims. Violence against Ahmadis began in the 1950s and in 1974,Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government passed a law,labelling them “non Muslim”. The Shia started experiencing serious horrors in the 1980s that have reappeared in the last 10-12 years. The Jamaat-e-Islami and the Taliban have always viewed Sufi forms of piety and dargahs (tombs),the core of the spiritual and cultural life of millions of Pakistanis,as unIslamic.

If Islam has not been able to unite Pakistan,what brings the nation together? Willy nilly,it is anti-Indianism. As Vali Nasr,a scholar of comparative Islamic politics,has noted,Indians may be inclined against Pakistan,but for Pakistan,anti- Indianism has been a source of nation-building. Pakistan lacks a positive source of togetherness. India has often been defined as an existential threat in Pakistan. For Indians,Pakistan has been an irritation,sometimes a deeply troubling irritation,as when wars were fought or Mumbai was attacked,but it has never been viewed as an existential threat.

Perhaps,anti-Indianism would have had less longevity if easier travel and the many bonds of culture — music,dance,film,cuisine — had been allowed an effective and organic role in people-to-people interaction. But that is not how polities operate. Especially in authoritarian systems,institutions of authority are not so constrained by mass inclinations. In Pakistan,the army has been an institution of unrivalled power. That India could be viewed as an existential threat was the source of the army’s legitimacy. But the army also used the argument to advance its vested interests and claim disproportionate resources. Anti-Indianism acquired psychological as well as institutional roots,one reinforcing the other.

States of this kind can often become national security states. A national security state ignores all other functions of the state,including law and order and economic development. It keeps securing itself against a possible war.

Can Nawaz Sharif’s victory deliver Pakistan out of this low-level equilibrium? Or,would he be pushed back into the standard tracks of history?

Two arguments suggest a new moment has arrived. First,Pakistan is going through a deep economic crisis. Acute power shortages have been widely noted. Investment and economic growth rates are very low. Most taxes are not paid,and the crisis of public finance is acute. Looking at Pakistan’s larger economic malaise through the prism of its decaying trains,Declan Walsh,the recently expelled New York Times correspondent,reports: “On paper,Pakistan Railways has almost 500 engines,but in reality barely 150 are in working order.”

An acute macroeconomic crisis normally requires a run to the IMF. Pakistan is close to that. An analogous,if not exactly similar,situation in India in 1990-91 led to a market-oriented shift in economic course. In all interviews since his victory,as also for weeks before,Sharif has argued that the economy is his foremost priority. He is also a businessman,not given to the PPP-style feudalism. One should expect him to redirect the energies of his administration towards the economy.

Second,it is also increasingly clear that Pakistan’s economic troubles have a lot to do with its turn to militancy and fratricidal strife. Measured at the 1990s purchasing power parity,the per capita incomes of India and Pakistan were roughly the same in the early 1970s. Pakistan then raced ahead of India for nearly two decades. By the late 1990s,in purchasing power parity terms,India’s GDP per capita had caught up with Pakistan and,by 2010,was roughly one and a half times higher. As India started rising around the early 1990s,Pakistan’s decline set in.

It is reasonable to suppose that Pakistan’s economic deceleration coincides with the onset of the Kashmir crisis and the US departure from Afghanistan in the early 1990s. Both led to an exceptional privileging of militant groups by the state: against India,in pursuit of gains in Afghanistan and in search of greater Islamism inside. In a way,Kashmir and Afghanistan have also devoured Pakistan from within.

While not acknowledging directly the negative internal consequences of Kashmir and Afghanistan,Sharif has argued that peace with India is a necessary condition for Pakistan’s economic turnaround. He has also repeatedly expressed a desire for greater trade with India,now standing at a paltry $500 million annually. This,too,is a positive sign.

Against these arguments,those advocating extreme caution have pointed to two dangers: the anti-Indian militants and the army.

However,two things ought to be noted. Is it better for India to deal with militant groups through effete or illegitimate political organisations that are opposed to them? Or is it better to rely on a party that at least has the potential to rein them in through pre-existing networks? The latter is the famous Nixon-in-China argument. Democrats could not have succeeded in having a rapprochement with China,for they would not have been able to carry the Republicans along. Once clear about the desirability of peace with China,Nixon could take the plunge. Sharif has the potential to engage the religious militants in a dialogue and rein them in; the PPP had no chance. One should,of course,not expect terrorism to disappear. But if my argument is right,the terror trend should decline.

Second,for the army to insist on an existential threat from India,when a similar threat has emerged from inside and to ignore the possibility of an economic collapse,will not be easy. The security dilemmas of Pakistan can no longer entirely be blamed on India. The army may have to compute its interests differently.

It may be true that to ignore history often condemns us to repeat it. But,equally,to not see the possibilities of redemption can only mean that even a new moment will go untapped. One will never know until one tries.

The writer is Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences at Brown University,where he also directs the India Initiative at the Watson Institute. He is a contributing editor at ‘The Indian Express’


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