Smile but keep powder dry
Ali Ahmed on how it is the Pakistan army and not the state which is a problem for India
DR MANMOHAN Singh has accepted the invite to visit Pakistan extended by President Asif Ali Zardari during his lunch stopover while on a pilgrimage visit to Ajmer. Since a ‘mutually convenient date’ is yet to be ascertained for the visit, there is sufficient time to create the conditions for a useful outcome. What can India do to prepare such an outcome?
First, one must identify what has been the problem between the two countries. This is easily done since India’s problem has not been the Pakistan state, its political class or its citizens. It is instead the Pakistani Army. The question then is how to tackle the Pakistan Army. The problem has been accentuated in the period of the proxy war going back a quarter-century by a nexus between elements of the army, principally its intelligence arm, the ISI, and the right wing in Pakistan.
Is there any reason to believe that this time around, the Pakistan Army is on board? The Army, in keeping with a self-professed ‘guardian’ role, has kept India’s peace overtures at bay. This time around, the Army has indicated better behaviour on the Kashmir front, with the latest MHA Annual Report testifying to a decline in infiltration and violence in the Valley over the past year.
However, this could well be tactical, Pakistan wanting to wait out the US in its Afghanistan-Pakistan (AfPak) endgame. Therefore, it cannot readily be taken that the leopard has changed its spots.
Being clear-eyed about the Pakistan Army position is a useful starting point to arriving at a doable aim for the visit. A minimalist expectation is that the visit broadcasts India’s goodwill. It helps narrow the even otherwise limited constituency of extremists in Pakistan. It will further draw forces interested in better ties, such as the liberals, the emerging middle class, commercial and cultural interests, away from the Army. It could even embolden rational forces within the military, splitting it from its ‘strategic assets’.
Since strengthening these forces is useful for the stability of Pakistan, the visit will be as much an investment in India’s own security as Pakistan’s.
While to stop at this point would be pragmatic, bolder steps can be envisaged since India is only in the consideration stage of the visit. These, however, require political will, supposedly in short supply in democracies contemplating elections as is India in the year after next. However, to be dismissive of their potential would be to do disservice to India’s growing power and aspiration.
It is widely held that India cannot realise its ambitions on the world stage as long as it is tied down in its region. Strategically, Pakistan, for reasons of external balancing, will lend itself to China’s power play in the region at India’s cost. India cannot afford Pakistan’s Army exercising a veto. In effect, India needs Pakistan more than Pakistan needs India. This implies that India cannot get away on the cheap. Political investment is necessary, for which the conditions have to be created by ambitious political and diplomatic moves.
THE CURRENT strategy is predicated on deepening the political, economic and military asymmetry with Pakistan that is seen as autonomously proceeding downhill. This is unlikely to work, firstly, because it amounts to writing Pakistan’s epitaph prematurely, and, secondly, the leaked letter of General VK Singh to the prime minister suggests that the asymmetry does not quite exist despite India being the world’s largest arms importer.
Any alternative moves would require being in sync with India’s long-held, popular position that it will not negotiate, leave alone concede, under the threat of a gun. This can only be even less so with Pakistan holding a gun to its own head. So, what can India do?
Home minister P Chidambaram is proceeding this week to Kashmir to preside over a meeting of the unified headquarters. This is admittedly to survey the coming summer campaign. In case Kashmir is as quiet this summer as it was last year, there would be a strong case to review the AFSPA by the time autumn sets in. Demilitarisation, a demand dating to the ‘healing touch’ policy, can then proceed over the winter, building on the momentum of the PM’s visit. A pronouncement laying out a road map by Chidambaram will help keep the situation manageable, keep the visit on course and inject in it potential for success.
A retraction of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) prior to the Prime Minister’s visit can go a long way in assuaging any reservations in Pakistan that its political leadership is selling out on Kashmir. Saner elements in Pakistan can claim that India is being more pliable through talks than it ever was through proxy war. Likewise, India can gain more through seeming concessions, than it has ever managed by a hardnosed, if not a hardline, posture.
Given the peace dividend at stake, the Prime Minister’s visit to Pakistan is a chance that must be taken. President Zardari’s ‘very soon’ could well be as early as this autumn.