For over six decades now, there is one issue on which successive Indian Prime Ministers have insisted on committing the same mistake again and again, refusing to learn anything from the bitter experiences of their predecessors. This peculiar Indian syndrome is called ‘Pakistanitis’. It is essentially an ailment which involves an inexplicable desire on the part of every Indian Prime Minister to be the one to settle all problems and disputes with Pakistan and usher in an era of peace, stability, friendship and prosperity in the region. The quest for this chimerical peace deal is always in utter disregard of the ground realities and flies in the face of information and intelligence inputs which militate against the possibility of any major breakthrough in relations with Pakistan.
Some Indian Prime Ministers have reached out to Pakistan after losing a war and under pressure from Pakistan's Western patrons (Jawaharlal Nehru after the 1962 debacle); others after winning wars and then frittering away the gains on the negotiating table in the fond hope of achieving lasting peace (Lal Bahadur Shastri in Tashkent after 1965 war, Atal Behari Vajpayee in 1999 after the Kargil war when he invited Gen Pervez Musharraf to Agra and again when he entered into a peace process in 2004 following the military stand-off after the terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001, and even Indira Gandhi at Shimla after the 1971 war); still others who not only succumb to the delusion of Pakistan's changed attitude towards India, but are also influenced by the utterly false notion sold to them by some aides, analysts and officials (people whose analysis and opinions always change according to what the man they seek to ingratiate desires) that the time was ripe to enter into a ‘Grand Bargain’ (read appeasement) to sort out issues with the hostile neighbouring country (Morarji Desai in the late 1970s, Rajiv Gandhi in 1989, IK Gujral with his ‘Gujral Doctrine’ in the 1990s and now Manmohan Singh since 2004 and even more since the 26/11 attacks in 2008). Needless to say, they have all had to bite the dust with nothing to really show for their labours. And yet, this obsession – actually more of a psychological ailment – persists with no cure in sight.
It is not just Indian Prime Ministers who tend to go overboard on the issue of Pakistan; the Indian public as well as the intellectual class, think-tankers, media personnel and what have you, is not much better. There are some common fallacies and fantasies that invariably guide the Indian public’s thinking process on Pakistan. These are as follows:
a) Personal friendships and relationships are often extrapolated to the political and the national level and it is imagined that the two states can share a relationship similar to that between individuals.
b) Social courtesies and overwhelming hospitality extended by Pakistanis (more a cultural characteristic rather than a sign of a desire for good relations) is often misinterpreted as a genuine change of heart.
c) A tendency to take things at face value. For instance, some senior Pakistani official (serving or retired) will always be quoted to buttress the case for reaching out to Pakistan. That the Pakistani interlocutor being quoted might not be telling the truth or may be telling a half-truth is something that is blithely ignored. Despite deception being one of the oldest tricks in the book, the Indians refuse to believe that they are being led up the garden path.
d) Greater value seems to be attached to words and optics rather than to actions on the ground that would actually prove the genuineness of the words.
e) Policy analysis and recommendations are made not on the basis of reality on the ground as it is but as it is imagined to be. Worse, these recommendations are based on interactions with the ‘usual suspects’ (many of them very decent, upright and genuine people who are nothing more than a fringe group, or if you will, an endangered species). What is more, Pakistan's window to the world is a bunch of around 500 extremely articulate people who interface with the rest of the world and are reasonableness personified. In the process, the grim, and often ugly reality, of what Pakistan is really up to tends to get brushed under the carpet.
f) Finally, there is the old and by now done-to-death ‘saviour complex’ suffered by Indians who are always ready to try and save Pakistan from itself. The way this works is that sometimes the threat of a military takeover and at other times the threat of a mullah takeover is waved frantically to present a case for making concessions to Pakistan. It is argued that India needs to seize the opportunity (short-hand for a compromise by India) to reach out to a beleaguered Pakistani regime (and/or Pakistani state) which in turn will eagerly and gratefully accept the Indian gesture and pave the way for ‘peace for all times’. It is of course quite another matter that every time India has done this, it has ended with the worst of both worlds: it has conceded ground to Pakistan without being able to save the regime for whose sake the concessions were made in the first place.
All these elements have once again come into play. India is being told that Pakistan has realised the folly of its ways and was now genuinely interested in peace and normalisation of relations with its eastern neighbour. The economic crunch coupled with the threat of Talibanisation and the deterioration of relations with the West have left Pakistan with no choice but to seek a peace deal with India, which should seize the moment. In order to strengthen the hands of the beleaguered Pakistani regime and convince the Pakistani public of the efficacy of the dialogue process, India should ‘pluck the low hanging fruit’ i.e. settle the Siachen and Sir Creek issues, which will give a fillip to the peace process. Interactions with Pakistani interlocutors, especially retired military officials, on the track-II circuit are offered as evidence of the changed mindset in Pakistan. The clincher is that India must strengthen the hands of moderate forces in Pakistan to isolate the radical Islamists who could otherwise takeover the Pakistani state.
There is however complete silence – both from within the Indian establishment and without – on the question of what Pakistan has done in tangible terms to convince India that a paradigm shift has been affected in Pakistan's strategic perception of India. Indeed, none of the metrics – to name just a few, stopping the export of terrorism and dismantling the infrastructure of terror directed against India, ending the inimical actions against India in Afghanistan, giving up their irredentist claims over the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, altering the school curriculum that portrays Hindus as Untermensch, stopping hostile propaganda (including the ISI-sponsored Difa-e-Pakistan Council which is whipping up anti-India sentiment and inciting people to violence against India) – that would conclusively indicate that the changes in Pakistan’s attitude towards India are not merely a tactical adjustment aimed at keeping the Eastern border settled at a time when the economy is tanking, tumultuous developments are unfolding on the Western front, and relations with the NATO/ISAF countries are on the downswing, are anywhere to be seen. The only thing on offer is the forward movement on the trade front – Pakistan has shifted from a positive list to a negative list of trading items pending grant of MFN status to India by the end of the 2012 – which is being sold as a huge concession on the part of Pakistan.
Bluntly put, liberalising the trading regime with India would have been a concession only if one side (India) stood to gain from it. The fact, however, is that Pakistan hopes to benefit as much from trade with India as India expects to profit from it and as such normalising trade relations cannot be called a concession on the part of Pakistan. True, opening trade with India would not have been possible for the civilian government in Pakistan without the concurrence of the top military brass. But this is less out of a change of heart and more out of economic compulsions and the need to protect the corporate interests of the Pakistan military. In any case, while normalisation of trade between India and Pakistan needs to be celebrated for its intrinsic value, it would be a delusional to treat trade as some sort of a magic bullet or a game-changer which will develop such strong vested interests in both countries making conflict and hostility a thing of the past. Quite simply, the level of mutual interdependence that could bring about such a state of affairs is years, if not decades, away. And even then, there is no guarantee that burgeoning trading relations will drastically reduce tensions between the two countries and help in resolving outstanding issues between them – remember the 1965 war when despite sharing close economic relationship and enjoying a very healthy trade surplus, Pakistan imposed war on India?
With the move by Pakistan towards granting MFN status to India being falsely projected as a big concession, the turn-the-other-cheek liberals in India have now started mounting pressure on the government to return the ‘favour’ by settling the Siachen and Sir Creek disputes more or less on Pakistani terms. Quite asides the fact that there is an astounding amount of ignorance about the nature of these disputes and the correctness of the Indian position, there is also a cavalier disregard for the strategic and tactical implications of settling these disputes on Pakistan's terms. Unfortunately, this attitude is also to be found in sections of the government who are very keen to push forward with the peace process with Pakistan regardless of the costs it entails. So much so that some top government officials (close to retirement and desperately eyeing a cushy post-retirement job) are stoutly defending the proposal to export 5000 mw of electricity to Pakistan as a goodwill gesture despite large parts of India is reeling under massive power shortages!
Notwithstanding the breakthrough of sorts on the trade front, the inherent limitations of what the revived peace process can achieve should be staring India in the face. Even though President Asif Zardari has always been interested in normalising relations with India, and in the first few months of his government he did try to break the logjam, his efforts were effectively stymied by the military establishment. Today, the limits of how far he can go in resolving issues with India is circumscribed not just by the Pakistan army but also by his own dwindling political capital. With Pakistan practically in an election mode, Zardari is hardly in a position to deliver anything tangible on any of India’s important metrics. If anything, he will be seeking to extract something substantial from India which he could then capitalise on to improve his party’s political prospects. Unfortunately for him, even if India did give him something, it won’t be of much help to him at the hustings. The problem is also that the weak and increasingly unpopular government of Dr Manmohan Singh is today in no position to make the grand gesture that Zardari might be seeking. Neither the Congress party, nor the opposition, is likely to support such a measure by the Manmohan Singh government.
Chances are, therefore, that while both India and Pakistan will for the foreseeable future continue with the process of engagement, no big breakthrough can be expected. The relationship will remain transactional with perhaps some incremental progress on the issues that are on the table. Come to think of it, until and unless the ‘mother of all problems’ between India and Pakistan is addressed – Pakistan’s pernicious Islamofascist ideology that renders it incapable of living in peace with India – it is practically impossible to have normal, let alone friendly, relations between the two countries.
Tail-piece: There is a lot of talk that the Zardari visit was part of a ‘Made in China’ peace process. If so, then all the more reason for scepticism because the odds are that like most Chinese made products, this peace process won’t be very durable!
Author is Senior Fellow in Vivekananda International Foundation