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Be liberal,be realistic

From the LoC to the nuclear arsenal,India can deal better with Pakistan if untenable assumptions are dispelled.

From the LoC to the nuclear arsenal,India can deal better with Pakistan if untenable assumptions are dispelled.

In August 1991,I was privileged to cover an important meeting between then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao and a special envoy of the Pakistani prime minister,Nawaz Sharif,Ambassador Shahryar Khan,in South Block. Shahryar Khan had brought a message of peace and friendship from his prime minister,significantly conveying that “India will see a qualitative change in the situation on the ground”. This was with particular reference to cross-border terrorism then afflicting Kashmir and the continuing violence along the Line of Control (LoC).

Fast-track to July 2013,and the same Shahryar Khan came to New Delhi,again as Sharif’s special envoy,to convey,I have no doubt,a message as reassuring as the one 22 years ago,even though I was not present in the room this time round. And just as it happened two decades ago,the message is belied by subsequent developments in India-Pakistan relations,including the continuing ceasefire violations along the International Border and the LoC. The promised change in the “situation on the ground” has not come about,and our prime minister has been compelled to express his disappointment at the lack of results from his more recent meeting with Sharif in New York.

Some analysts have argued that it is in India’s interest to strengthen Sharif’s hand vis-à-vis the Pakistani army,that we must cut him some slack,being aware of the constraints he faces as a civilian leader. This is fine,except that we ought to be clear what this supposed slack involves. Sharif himself is quite clear what he expects from India: he wants to bring the focus back to the “core issue” of Kashmir,he wants alleged Indian involvement in Baluchistan to be on the bilateral agenda,he seeks Indian understanding of his inability to move ahead with the trial of the perpetrators of the Mumbai terrorist outrage and to rein in the likes of Hafiz Saeed and the Lashkar-e-Toiba. In other words,India must concede what the Pakistani army wants so that Sharif can demonstrate that he has been able to get from India what his army could not,and thus wield more authority over that army.

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Other analysts seem to operate on the assumption that India is a major influence on political dynamics in Pakistan,including on civil-military relations. The reality is that what happens in Pakistan will be largely determined by domestic factors. India’s influence is and is likely to remain marginal for the foreseeable future. Let us not succumb to the temptation of adopting grand gestures in the hope that the deeply adversarial nature of the relationship will be transformed overnight.

One should equally avoid the trap set by several Indian and well-meaning foreign analysts,who argue that a break-up of Pakistan or its takeover by jihadi elements would pose a huge challenge to India and hence India must do everything possible to avoid this denouement from becoming reality. One can readily accept that were Pakistan to disintegrate or slip into a fundamentalist morass,this would confront India with a most dangerous situation. What is not valid is the premise that India can actually do anything to prevent this from happening if the people and leaders of Pakistan are themselves unable to do so. Keeping Pakistan intact and viable is Pakistan’s responsibility,not India’s.

Another aspect of this argument relates to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme. A frequent warning conveyed to India is that Pakistan is rapidly expanding its nuclear arsenal,deploying theatre nuclear weapons and lowering the threshold of nuclear use to neutralise India’s conventional superiority,and this poses an escalating security threat to India. India is advised to assuage Pakistan’s security concerns,even if they appear paranoid,by making some gestures on Kashmir,adopting a low profile in Afghanistan and accepting a so-called bilateral strategic restraint regime. Some American scholars have begun to suggest that it may not be such a bad idea to give Pakistan a civilian nuclear deal like India’s and sponsor Pakistan’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the Missile Technology Control Regime on par with India; that these measures may serve to allay Pakistan’s security concerns and its sense of having been discriminated against.

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These are patently self-serving arguments. If Pakistan has a paranoid fear of India,then by definition nothing that India will do can assuage its irrational security concerns. This is being trotted out at the same time as Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders are approvingly quoted as saying that it is not India that is a threat to Pakistan,but domestic terrorism and instability. Both arguments cannot be true. Depending upon the occasion and the audience,the argument veers from one end of the spectrum to the other. And US analysts neglect to acknowledge that,since 9/11,Pakistan has looked at the US as intent upon depriving it of its nuclear crown jewels. This perception has been reinforced by the US operation to assassinate Osama bin Laden,hiding in plain sight at Abbottabad. Acquiring more weapons and delivery vehicles,making them more mobile and dispersed,are as much driven by the US threat as it is by India. To try and put the onus on India to rein in Pakistan’s strategic programme is barking up the wrong tree and,in any case,unlikely to influence Pakistani behaviour.

Once the fog of untenable assumptions and misplaced perceptions is dispelled,we can then begin to deal with Pakistan in a more realistic manner. This is not an argument for reduced engagement or putting relations on hold. We should explore every possibility to enhance bilateral relations whenever and wherever opportunities arise,even as we must remain ready to safeguard our interests whenever they are threatened. We should pursue a more liberal visa regime,expanded trade relations and explore areas of convergent interests,such as climate change,energy security and disaster management. Even modest progress in such areas may cumulatively add up to improved relations over a period of time. We already witness this in the broadening of India-Pakistan relations over the past decade through several incremental and measured steps. This record is a better guide to managing India-Pakistan relations and avoiding serial disappointments.

The writer,a former foreign secretary,is chairman,National Security Advisory Board and RIS,and senior fellow,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi.

First published on: 06-11-2013 at 01:00:42 am
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