Sunday, May 19, 2013

Change of guard in Pakistan-Road not taken
M K Bhadrakumar, May 18, 2013 :
Nawaz Sharif’s invitation to prime minister Manmohan Singh to attend the swearing-in ceremony of the new Pakistani government was an extempore remark and it was understood that way in New Delhi, but it called attention to the tantalizing prospect that something may have fundamentally changed in Pakistan and a refocusing of sights may be necessary.

Sharif made some very hopeful remarks in the recent weeks. Being a shrewd politician, when he spoke in the middle of his election campaign, he knew he wasn’t saying things that would mar his party’s electoral prospects. That made his interview with Karan Thapar riveting. Those remarks went beyond the audacity of hope that politicians are wont to make.

Sharif told Thapar he is willing to resolve all outstanding issues with India peacefully. Arguably, this has been said before also. But then, he went into specifics. Sharif signaled that he would deny anti-India militant groups safe haven; would forbid any sort of anti-India speeches, including by Lashkar-e-Taiba spokesman Hafez Saeed; and, he would investigate the Kargil War and the 26/11 terrorist attacks on Mumbai.

Sharif suo moto made these benchmarks for the normalization of relations with India. The big question on everyone’s mind today is whether the Pakistani generals would allow all this to happen. There is near-consensus among our experts and analysts in the media and think tanks that the Pakistani military is rooted in the past and has no intentions of vacating the heights it occupies in the country’s foreign and security policies, especially policies towards India.

An entrenched mindset in India senses the existence of an entrenched mindset in Pakistan and insists there are no real prospects of a significant rapprochement with Pakistan. It implies that the ebb and flow of life in the upcoming Sharif era will remain as it used to be.

It may well be so, but the stakes are so high it is worthwhile to verify. No harm done, after all, to the country’s vital interests. The point is, we are in a grey zone today and to keep a closed mind means not taking note of what has been happening around us. Through the past few years of the India-Pakistan dialogue process several new templates did appear and many of them are of a benign nature.

Sharif and the military have shared concerns as regards the extremist threat to the country’s internal security and stability. True, clarity is lacking about the Pakistani military’s willingness to abandon the enemy image of India and the terrorist infrastructure apparently exists still, but then, it could only have been with the military’s approval that the previous government’s moves toward rapprochement with India were possible, too. This is one thing.

Working relationship

There is no question about the military’s extreme concern over the crisis of internal security and the free fall of the economy. Does this translate as awareness on the part of the military regarding the desirability of tapping into a working relationship with India? This is the second thing.

Again, from Sharif’s side, too, it must be said that he is a chastened man today and there could be little inclination to repeat the politics of confrontation – with the presidency, army, judiciary and media – that was characteristic of his previous government.

What lends an intriguing touch is also that the military leadership is in transition and it will be an year from now that a new leadership, hopefully of Sharif’s choice, settles down in the GHQ in Rawalpindi. Thus, time works in Sharif’s favour to consolidate his hold on power through a one-year period ahead. This is the third thing.

On the other hand, what complicates matters is the United States’ attitude toward Sharif and the manner in which Pakistan’s foreign and domestic policies lie intertwined. For Washington, it is the Pakistani military’s cooperation in the Afghan peace talks that counts most on the ground.

Sharif seeks help from the IMF and a good working relationship with Washington is helpful. But then, there are problem areas such as the drone attacks or the public demand to negotiate peace with extremist groups. This complex matrix impacts the civilian-military relationship in Pakistan.

Here the onus is on India to strengthen Sharif’s hands and show that the improvement of the bilateral ties works in favour of Pakistan’s economic recovery, security and stability. Evidently, Delhi should calibrate bilateral processes that give encouragement to the positive tendencies in Pakistan.

Sharif is a familiar interlocutor and the back channel, which goes back in time to Sharif as a young man from Lahore, would have a crucial role to play in the months ahead so that transparency of mutual intentions is ensured.

There are positive signs in the air, which it will be foolish to ignore. After all, the graph of violence in J&K dipped by 36 per cent through 2012. There have been no major attempts at cross-border terrorism. The big picture is also encouraging. Sharif’s government will be stable and given a marked shift in the Pakistani “mindset,” as we call it, his overtures to India will not be the stuff of polemics within Pakistan.

High-level visits help sustain the momentum and our 2014 poll should not come in the way. India should give full-throttle help to Sharif’s economic programme. Pakistan has legitimate interests in Afghanistan just as India would have in Nepal or Sri Lanka. If Delhi is able to nudge the Obama administration to break with the past and be “on the right side of history”, that will certainly help.

Paradoxically, the geopolitics of the region does not cast shadows on India-Pakistan relations.

China-Pakistan relationship is no longer India-centric. Nor is the US hedging its India policies. Delhi can live with any “thaw” in Russia-Pakistan ties.

No country instigates India-Pakistan rivalries in Afghanistan and the wounds, if any, are only self-inflicted ones. In sum, the fallacy lies in ignoring the road not taken so far, because of preconceived notions that it may lead nowhere.

(The writer is a former diplomat) 

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