Pakistan-India: Nurturing a paradigm shift

As Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee lands in Islamabad Saturday, there is plenty of speculation on what the 24-hour visit will generate. Actually, the stories may not be many. Mukherjee comes to deliver the invitation for the SAARC summit to be held in New Delhi in April this year. He will call on President Pervez Musharraf, Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz and his counterpart Khurshid Kasuri.

There is some expectation that the four agreements – on reducing risk of nuclear accidents or unauthorised use of nuclear weapons, revised visa regime, speedy repatriation of inadvertent border-crossers and quarterly flag meetings between sector commanders at the Line of Control – finalised during the November 2006 foreign secretary-level talks may be signed.

As a stand alone event Mukherjee’s visit is not significant, but as part of a paradigm shift in Pakistan-India relations it is.

Coincidentally, it also comes within a week of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s offer to Pakistan for a friendship treaty. Manmohan Singh’s offer defines possibly the ultimate outcome of the present peace process. But of immediate significance are the inputs required for such an output – confidence building, normalisation and most importantly conflict resolution.

Significantly, media excitement about every Pakistan-India encounter notwithstanding, this bilateral relationship is off the sensational roller coaster. Having tried all thinkable means – moral-immoral, legal-illegal, military-non-military and political-non-political –” the two countries are at the dialogue table. And that too for three solid years!

Manmohan Singh froze the dialogue after the Mumbai serial train bombings. He made a political choice. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) emerging response strategy, using the still electorally popular man Narendra Modi who was linked to the 2002 genocide in Gujarat, would have raked up deadly communalism.

Fury against Indira Gandhi’s tragic assassination had over 2,000 Sikhs killed overnight. Also Pakistan’s alleged involvement in the Mumbai blasts of the early 1990s made it vulnerable to culpability. Manmohan Singh did not take the risk. However dialogue was resumed shortly after.

Another important area for cooperation – intelligence sharing –” was also identified. During the January 2006 breakthrough meeting in Islamabad, the Indian National Security Advisor of the BJP government, Brajesh Mishra, had also held a meeting with Pakistan’s ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) chief General Ehsan ul Haq.

Steering away from distrust and violence, this historically complex relationship is not an easy task. The lingering suspicion and the violent parting of ways in 1947 which left millions dead and generated the biggest population swap of about 10 million, precludes a sudden turn around. Yet on a cautiously optimistic note, where the two countries stand at present is a far cry from the relationship defining assertions by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

After Pakistan’s failed Operation Gibraltar against India, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in September 1965 had said: "Pakistan would wage a war of a 1,000 years, a war of defence."

After having midwifed the birth of Bangladesh then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi triumphantly yelled: "We have avenged 1,000 years of history." When she made these remarks on Dec 18, 1971, Pakistan was only 24 years old. She was referring to the 1,000-year-old minority Muslim rule over majority Hindu India.

There is now a desire to turn away from the warring zones – the three wars (1948, 1965 and 1971), two mini-wars (1965 Rann of Kutch and 1999 Kargil), 1987 Operation Brasstacks, in 1990 the first nuclear crisis leading to the Gates Mission and the two near wars in January and June 2002. And then the Lahore and Agra summits, which amounted to ‘Summits to Nowhere’.

The momentum generated from 2004 Musharraf-Vajpayee led breakthrough has been sustained. Continuous engagement on the core unresolved issue of the political future of the Kashmiris, the expanding scope of possible resolution formulas acceptable to the Kashmiris, to Pakistan and to India has kept the momentum going. As is the realisation that other bilateral problems needs need to be resolved. With the breakthrough on Sir Creek, there is expectation of progress on Siachen too.

They are now on a steady track of normalization. They are inching away from the path of bilateral confrontation. Over a 100 annual Pakistan-India official meetings take place covering border security matters to visa issues, to trade issues and on core issues like Kashmir and security too.

Brief interludes similar to the post-Mumbai one will happen. The half-century-old distrust and policy moves that have caused animus will also not disappear overnight. Reopening of old connecting modes is underway – almost irreversibly. Airways, motorways, sea-routes and the rail tracks are becoming functional. Progress has also been made on cross-border trade. Concrete steps towards resolution of conflicts guarantees increased trade between these natural trading partners.

The People’s links keep multiplying as they naturally will. History, culture, religion, economic and even blood ties in many cases provide the perpetual impetus for cross-border travel. And the world of media, perpetually following the fascinating journey of reconnection, tells the narrative simply, analytically and critically. It keenly observes the changing design and tempo of this Pakistan-India tapestry as it moves from tentative engagement to more confident linking –” whether its artists, friends, students, faith tourists, sportsmen and businessmen.

Politicians, as opposed to governments, are a mixed bag. In Pakistan, the main opposition party Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) remains supportive of the present government’s India policy. By contrast the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who first opted to re-orient Pakistan’s policy towards India and was undercut by the establishment, is hugely critical of it.

Might he have still been in power there is no doubt he would have traveled much quicker on the path to normalization. His party’s position today is merely political. It seeks more sticks with which to beat the Musharraf government. No more.

In India it’s worse. The grand men of the BJP opposition, in effect the architects of Manmohan Singh’s current Pakistan policy, are also the grand critics of the very same policy! They play politics too nakedly. They want to know of the secret deals that the Prime Minister has struck or is going to strike on Kashmir and have criticized intelligence sharing.

The Congress party is following the trail the BJP initiated. Now like bloodhounds they seek to draw political blood from the Congress leadership taking that trail!

Ultimately, it will be the non-bureaucratic forces and visionary politicians on both sides that will keep this relationship from returning to the confrontational path.