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A terror attack after a chat with Pakistan is as certain as death

Pakistan must get over its obsession with and fear of India

Written by Rohan Parikh |
Updated: January 12, 2016 10:38:57 am
Pathankot, Pathankot air base, Pathankot air base attack, pathankot air force base, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Air Force personnel, Pathankot Air Force personnel, Dhaki chowk Security personnel at the Pathankot airbase during PM Narendra Modi’s visit on Saturday. (Express photo by Gurmeet Singh)

The January 2nd attacks in Pathankot confirm to us that like Death and Taxes, there is one more certainty in life – a terrorist attack after an India-Pakistan détente.

As with Kargil in 1999, the Parliament Attacks of 2001, and the Mumbai Attacks of 2008, there is a long list of atrocities, spectacular or minor, that severed otherwise thawing relations between the two countries. However, in this instance, I believe that optimism should not be buried under the bellicose rhetoric that has followed Pathankot.

Under normal circumstances, I would counsel skepticism in dealing with a Pakistan that is schizophrenic at best, and duplicitous, at worst. I would treat peace summits with cynicism. I would argue that even assuming the best intentions, the Pakistani civilian government is powerless over the military. I would argue that the real power center, the ISI, is overrun with ideologues that would cynically play up a fear of India to sell their own importance to the Pakistani people. I would even argue that one of the foundational myths of Pakistan (that bulwark against feared Hindu domination) make the population uniquely susceptible to irrational fears of its neighbor.

However, despite all of this, I am today cautiously optimistic of a breakthrough. I have long argued that there are two pre-conditions to India-Pakistan peace: both sides need to overcome their historical fears, and both sides need strong peacemakers at their helm.

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First – India had to get over it’s own obsession with Pakistan and Kashmir. This has already occurred. I believe a study of the average Indian concerns would place Pakistan far below jobs, development, local politics, and possibly even Bollywood, and cricket on the national consciousness. Wider global ambitions mean that Pakistan is now considered more a neighborhood irritant, albeit a potentially dangerous one, than a national obsession. Cricket, being the barometer for all matters sub-continental, even India-Pakistan matches these days are viewed without the life or death emotion of the past.

Second – Pakistan must get over its obsession with and fear of India. Here too, I believe there has been progress. Viewed from across the border, Pakistan’s “death by a thousand cuts” strategy has done little to slow India’s rise towards economic superpowerdom. Over the last three decades, India has outpaced Pakistan in just about every military, economic, or social measure; has secured a place at every major global table; has maintained far more religious cohesion than Pakistan; and even gallingly extended its hegemony over cricket! The civilian establishment in Pakistan seems to recognize that the said thousand cuts have ended up being inflicted on themselves, and that normalization of the relationship with India is overwhelmingly in the economic interests of Pakistan. This is evidenced by the conciliatory gestures from both Nawaz Sharif and Zardari, who agree on little else.

The raison d’etre of the Pakistani military establishment – to stave off the imagined inevitable invasion and assimilation of Pakistan into India, seems increasingly far-fetched. Even more so with the rise of Modi and Hindutva – why would a prosperous and stable India want to occupy a nuclear armed, unstable and Islamic country? To the average aspirational Pakistani, brought up on a diet of satellite TV, this is an increasingly difficult fantasy to peddle.

Third – Hardliners are the best peacemakers. On the Right, Modi’s nationalist credentials, and his reputation as a Hindu-hardliner shield him from any criticism. His hawkish national security advisor, Ajit Doval, is popular and trusted, while the Left is perceived as weak on national security and their criticism easily batted away. Modi is thus in a unique historical position to give the concessions needed to achieve lasting peace. If Modi were to make a pitch to the people of India for the LoC as a permanent border, a concession that would bury most other leaders, I believe he would succeed. That Modi is ambitious, and keen to cement his place as a great statesman is also not in doubt. Thus, there is an opportunity on the Indian side not seen since the Vajpayee years.

Finally, the most difficult part– An alignment in Pakistani civil and military thinking about peace with India.

This is the final piece that may have fallen into place after the appointment of Raheel Sharif as the Chief of Army Staff and the gruesome December 2014 massacre of army school children in Peshawar. It appears that after the massacre of their own children, the Pakistani military leadership has finally come to view the jihadists as a greater threat to Pakistan than India and Raheel Sharif has been relentless in his pursuit of (most) jihadists. Thus, everything could now boil down to the dance of the Sharifs (Nawaz and Raheel). While I believe that Nawaz appears to be a genuine peacemaker, the Nawaz -Modi talks and the ‘impromptu’ visit to Pakistan by Modi, would be impossible without the consent of Raheel. So a historical opportunity rests on the enigma that is Raheel Sharif. Is he a true reformer? Is he powerful enough to sideline the fundamentalists in the ISI? Would he willingly give up power over foreign policy to the civilian establishment?

Either ways, now is the time to mute our bellicosity, to call Pathankot style provocations for what they are –merely provocations designed to derail us, to put our trust in the Modi-Doval duo and to give them a real shot at completing the peace process that Vajpayee began.

We cannot change our neighbors. We can merely hope to seize the opportunity that this temporary alignment of stars offers us.

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Rohan Parikh, a businessman working in education and real estate, is an alumni of the Wharton School of Business and INSEAD. Outside of business his interests are in public policy and social enterprise.

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