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Friday, July 01, 2022

Making sense of Pakistan

The prime minister must use his political capital wisely on his big initiative....

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta |
July 31, 2009 4:57:40 am

The continuing controversy over the Sharm el-Sheikh statement poses a huge challenge for the prime minister. He has to recognise how much at odds his strategy on Pakistan appears to be with a lot of public opinion. He is clearly right in thinking that there is no option but to try for peace. Trying for peace within the bounds of prudence risks failure,not trying at all will guarantee perpetual failure. Most people would understand that point. They also understand that if politically helping the Pakistani leadership buys you some long-term dividends,it will be absolutely worth it. But what they are a little mystified by is how the Sharm el-Sheikh statement helps anything. The key issue is not the linking of talks with progress on terrorism. You talk if you think you can make progress. The really worrying aspect was the reference to Balochistan in the joint statement. The PM is technically right in his statement: mere mention does not amount to an admission of anything. But this technical self-exoneration misses the larger politics of the issue.

India-Pakistan relations are steeped in symbolism; and the fact that this was the first reference made to Balochistan in any joint statement was,not implausibly,taken as a mark of something. Our response to questions about the activities of our consulates in Afghanistan was unusually defensive. And the PM should have realised that the matter will not be as simple as denying our involvement in Balochistan. Whatever is the truth of the matter,there is a propaganda war on this issue; and recently scholars in the US have given succour to claims of Indian involvement. Our challenge will not be issuing denials: it will be reclaiming the moral high ground.

Second,there is a curious asymmetry in India-Pakistan exchanges. All intelligent leaders realise that the real game is not about the governments of the two countries. It is about how a government can appeal to the public opinion of the other country. For all his mendaciousness,this was a point Musharraf understood very powerfully; and he never shied away from courting or hoodwinking Indian public opinion. However,no one in the present Pakistani leadership seems to have the slightest ability or desire to try and appeal to Indian public opinion directly,by some gesture or display of political savvy. This puts the Indian PM in the awkward position of having to bat for the credibility of the Pakistani leadership. What makes this task odd is the fact that the Pakistani government,instead of doing something that would appeal to Indian public opinion,went on to milk the Sharm el-Shaikh statement in a propaganda war. And we took the rather bizarre line: go by the interpretation we are giving,not the interpretation Pakistan is giving. This is an odd new definition of a “joint” statement. It is awkward for the PM to say “trust but verify,” when at the same time the Pakistani leadership seems to be cocking a snook at you. For much of the public the exchange of dossiers and the admissions contained in it are a sideshow. What they are looking for is evidence that can convince them that there is serious India-related action

on the ground,not just Pakistan sacrificing a few low-level pawns.

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The third political issue is rather more subtle. Suppose for argument’s sake you were to say,“Let Pakistan claim rhetorical victories it can,so long as those give it cover to take real action.” But this line of defence can be,beyond a point,self-defeating. Even assiduous pursuers of peace have to admit this. Part of the difficulty with dealing with Pakistan has been that substantial sections of its elite have been in self-denial. As Farzana Shaikh’s powerful new book,Making Sense of Pakistan,argues,the fact that the identity of Pakistan has been constructed negatively has consistently led its leadership to either seek strategic validation from abroad,or look for alibis that can confirm its self-fulfilling sense of being perpetually threatened. The US has consistently fed the Pakistani elites’ “We are indispensable to the West” syndrome. By putting Balochistan on the table we are continuing to feed Pakistan’s self-perception that it is the victim. This sense of victimhood is the biggest obstacle in Pakistan’s coming to terms with its problems. We must do all we can to help Pakistan fight terrorism. But only Pakistan can save itself. The test of its resolve will not be that it claims diplomatic victories. The test will be the day it does not need rhetorical crutches to provide cover to it to move decisively against terrorism directed against India.

The PM may be right that Pakistan is moving and we need patience. But there is a backdrop to our worries. Mumbai was an unprecedented national humiliation. It followed on the heels of what looked like substantial progress in relations with Pakistan,almost a new euphoria. The joint terror mechanism was supposed to be precisely the forum where we had candid discussions on activities of both countries,in some kind of formal symmetry. And it achieved nothing. All this is not a reason to continue trying. But it is a reason to think that we will have to work harder on the credibility of the process.

Everyone understands that a significant breakthrough can come only through the intervention of leaders. To this extent,any engagement with Pakistan will be personalised. But this runs a large risk that the PM himself will be held responsible for all missteps big and small. There are many who want the PM to fail,even in his own party. It is all the more important that the PM uses whatever little political capital he has on this issue wisely. In other systems,leaders step in to break deadlocks or only when there is something major to announce. Here there is a danger that the PM will be reduced to dossier manager or put in a position of explaining all commas. Assuming there is progress with Pakistan,the big political challenges are yet to come. If a joint statement has produced this storm,wait till we negotiate meaningful agreements. The PM needs to be credible so that he

can show political courage when it will be genuinely consequential. The disappointment with the PM’s statement in Parliament was that it did nothing to assuage his detractors. It also gave no evidence that he will have the credibility to carry the country when genuine peace might be possible.

The writer is president,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi

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