Corridor of uncertaintyhttps://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/kartarpur-corridor-punjab-narendra-modi-navjot-singh-sidhu-imran-khan-india-pakistan-relations-5476979/

Corridor of uncertainty

Kartarpur is an isolated gesture by Pakistan prompted by domestic compulsions.

Corridor of uncertainty
The controversy surrounding the Kartarpur corridor reinforces the narrative about the Modi government’s Pakistan policy, comprising a contradictory set of ideas and processes. (File)

Several sections of the media, including this newspaper (Faith and Diplomacy, IE, November 27) have been upbeat about the Kartarpur Corridor. An editorial in this paper (Delhi dissonance, IE, November 29) has accused the government of speaking in different voices, and criticised it for not seizing the opportunity created by Pakistan’s decision to open the corridor after 20 years. However, given the structural problems in the Indo-Pakistan relationship, no corridor cutting through the Radcliffe Line seems to have the potential to ensure better relations between the two nuclear-armed neighbours. It’s surprising that the opening of the corridor is being compared to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Nothing much will change unless tension along the international border is reduced and we should not repeat the old error of exaggerating the significance of one confidence-building measure.

The controversy surrounding the Kartarpur corridor reinforces the dominant narrative of the Modi government’s Pakistan policy being contradictory and counterposed set of ideas and processes. It is being claimed that India has been swept off its feet by Pakistan’s charm offensive, demonstrated not just by the “large-heartedness” of one friend to leverage his powerful position to help realise the long-held dream of co-religionists of his another friend living across the border, but also by his willingness to discuss anything, anytime, anywhere, with his counterpart.

However, the opening of Kartarpur corridor is not a window of opportunity for meaningful resumption of stalled peace process and change in India’s Pakistan policy; the Indian exercise seems designed to appease domestic audiences, primarily in the Sikh-dominated Punjab.

One should never forget that the Indo-Pak dialogue process is driven by India’s deep-seated desire to break out from its exasperating subcontinental preoccupations and to play a greater role in global politics. On the other hand, India’s emergence as an economic and regional powerhouse has ignited a debate in Pakistan – geographically, economically, demographically and militarily much weaker than India – as to whether to press on with an irredentist attitude or to reap economic benefits by taking advantage of India’s rise. But the outcome of this debate is awaited as consensus is yet to emerge, despite Imran Khan’s pompous claims of all political parties and the powerful military establishment being on one page regarding the improvement of ties with India.

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It is clear to those who care to look that Pakistan is in a downward spiral. To all intents and purposes, it is a “rentier” national security state. Thus, the key consideration for Imran is whether to continue with the formulaic policy of making “India bleed through a thousand cuts,” hoping for New Delhi to give in to such pressures, or to make peace with India on a grand bargain, and dedicate scarce resources to address Pakistan’s growing internal challenges, such as looming financial bankruptcy, economic fragility, ethno-nationalist movements, and growing Islamist extremism.

Imran is aware that he cannot make “Naya” Pakistan with the bizarre notion of “eating grass” to seek parity with India. However, the harping of Kashmir issue on the ground-breaking ceremony of Kartarpur corridor leaves nobody in doubt that Pakistanis are yet to settle the debate whether it is in their interest to strengthen the peace process with India and focus national energies on economic growth and internal stability.

Pakistan’s policies towards Kashmir continue to remain under the firm grip of its military-intelligence establishment, which chose to adopt an aggressive posture in Kashmir after New Delhi’s bungling of the 1987 Jammu and Kashmir assembly elections. It created territorial safe havens and training zone for militant groups and alienated youths to force India into a dialogue on Kashmir. After the restoration of democracy in Pakistan, the civilian governments of different shades adopted somewhat conciliatory approach of engaging India diplomatically to address other disputes. Although the civilians in Islamabad have added Kashmir to the dialogue agenda to keep Rawalpindi in good humour, India’s insistence has also ensured that terrorism is a major talking point.

During the last three decades, the composite dialogue or peace process has seen many ups and downs, with India sometimes going an extra mile to reassure Pakistan of its lack of hostile intentions. But such reassurances and efforts at conciliation, short of territorial concessions in Kashmir, have failed to assuage Pakistan. The 1999 Kargil incursion, aimed at internationalising the Kashmir issue, took place immediately after Atal Bihari Vajpayee made historical peace overtures towards Pakistan. The deep psychological scars on the nation’s collective psyche caused by the 2009 Mumbai terror attacks has only reinforced a sense of profound scepticism regarding the credibility of any peace initiative from the Pakistani side, ultimately culminating in a political stand that ‘talks’ and ‘terror’ can’t be held together.

The military in Pakistan has deeply internalised the foundational logic of Pakistan’s creation as a homeland for South Asia’s Muslims, and its ideological worldview and operational conduct is driven by this logic. Many civilian leaders have also shared this worldview. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was one such politician, and it is too early to put Imran in this league.

Why another flip-flop on the Kartarpur corridor when the Modi government has already done so many, the latest in September regarding the foreign minister’s talks. The Modi government has to ensure that India’s major agenda, the punishment of the perpetrators of 26/11, is not sidelined in the hype of ‘a new beginning’ with Pakistan. At the same time, the BJP can’t afford to be seen denying the Sikh community an opportunity to mark Guru Nanak’s 550’s birth anniversary when Pakistan is willing to roll out a red carpet.

Internal party dynamics of the Congress Party may have prompted Navjot Singh Sidhu to act as ‘ice-breaker’ or ‘peace bridge’ between the two countries, however, the weight of structural constraints will force New Delhi to continue with its present Pakistan policy. It may be true that the Sikh relationship with Pakistan is no longer looked at with suspicion by New Delhi, but there is no evidence yet which shows that Pakistan’s military has stopped to view this as an opportunity to drive a wedge among Indians.

Why Pakistan is aggressively courting Sikhs is also not too difficult to understand. The security establishment, which considers itself in existential struggle with India for Pakistan’s survival, seeks to achieve manifold objectives; it hopes to trigger more confusion in India’s foreign policy establishment which is already inclined to confused strategy and competing agendas, to court Sikh extremist elements for reviving militancy, and strengthen the voices of those civil society groups that share its objectives.

With Pakistan’s security establishment continuing to show counterproductive and revisionist behaviour, and retaining the veto to shape the scope and direction of its Kashmir policy, the Kartarpur corridor is unlikely to become a positive collaborative project of reconciliation between India and Pakistan. Despite obsessing about Pakistan, India has strategically more to think about, which allows the Modi government the freedom to remain non-reciprocal to Imran’s tactical pleadings of dialogue. One should not be surprised if the war of words against Islamabad escalates in coming months as the 2019 general elections approaches.

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Kartarpur corridor is not the crack in the Iron Curtain between India and Pakistan. At this point, our own Berlin Wall moment remains realistically as unachievable as ever.