Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Should the Indian and Pak PMs meet in New York?

Kanwal Sibal, 
Dean, Centre for International Relations and Diplomacy, VIF

Whether the Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, should meet his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, in New York in September has become a politically controversial issue. The government is being cautious in not ruling in or out such a meeting at this stage, hoping that between now and late September, the surrounding circumstances may change for the better, making the meeting politically less risky in the background of the public agitation over the killing of five Indian soldiers on the Line of Control, and the government’s shaky handling of the Defence Minister’s statement on the incident in the Lok Sabha.

Clearly, the minister’s first statement, casting doubts on whether the regular troops from Pakistan were involved in the killing, was intended to keep open the doors not only for the New York meeting but also the resumption of the composite dialogue prior to that, for which suitable dates were being considered. The second statement accusing Pakistan’s military of direct involvement, followed by giving the Indian military a free hand in responding to Pakistan’s cease-fire violations, has, naturally, complicated the political choreography of dialogue resumption, with the postponement of some envisaged secretary level-meetings as the first casualty.

It is apparent that Nawaz Sharif’s election raised hopes of better relations with Pakistan, especially as improvement of ties with India figured in his party’s election manifesto and his post-election statements on expanding economic cooperation and expediting the trial of those involved in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks struck the right chords. These positive perspectives evidently prompted our Prime Minister to send his special envoy to meet Nawaz Sharif even before he formally took office, a gesture reciprocated by the latter through sending his special envoy to Delhi with the message that all stake-holders in Pakistan — meaning the military — were on board on improving ties with India.

The positive momentum of these early moves has, however, been reversed by subsequent developments. They have raised the question of whether the early optimism on our side was justified in the light of our frustrating experience of decades in dealing with Pakistan, the structural impediments that exist there in normalizing ties, and the long-standing links of Nawaz Sharif and his party with jihadi organizations. To this must be added the region’s changing geo-political scenario with American overtures to the Taliban and its renewed recognition of the Pakistan military’s crucial role in facilitating an orderly American withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Already, under Nawaz Sharif’s very brief watch, many negative events have occurred, raising questions of whether we can count on him to control sufficiently the various elements in the body-politic of Pakistan in disagreement with his perceived positive agenda towards India: his political support base, extremist religious organisations, the military and the bureaucracy. For over a decade, Pakistan has been accusing our consulate in Jalalabad of supporting the insurgency in Balochistan. The Pakistani foreign office’s reaction to the Ramban incident in Kashmir was deliberately couched in religiously provocative terms in demanding an Indian inquiry into reports of desecration of the Quran.

Nawaz Sharif has been saying repeatedly that he intends to focus on resolving the Kashmir problem, describing Kashmir as Pakistan’s “jugular vein” in his first address to the nation and equating it with the economy as the two priority issues. Such rhetoric cannot but fire up popular anti-Indian sentiments and demands of “progress” on Kashmir to Pakistan’s satisfaction. In June, the numbers for infiltration across the LoC and of terrorists killed went up considerably. The political atmosphere has been worsened by Pakistan’s parliament passing two anti-Indian resolutions in the last few days on cease-fire violations, countered by an Indian parliamentary resolution declaring that the whole of the state of Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of India, with Pakistan illegally occupying a part of it.

On top of it, Pakistan’s finance minister has announced that the grant of ‘Most Favoured Nation’ (MFN) status to India is not under consideration. Pakistan was supposed to grant it last December, but decided to delay formalizing the decision till after the elections. Nawaz Sharif’s declared commitment to expand economic ties with India would have gained credibility if he had quickly closed the MFN chapter. That the Urdu translation of MFN makes the issue politically sensitive is a dishonest excuse. The latest Pakistani strategem to gain time is to leave business bodies on both sides to discuss the issue and allay the concerns of sectors in Pakistan that fear competition from India, following which the way would have been paved for the grant of MFN status. The issue could well get tagged to the resumption of the dialogue process, which means that it will get further complicated politically.

To cap it all, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa has received sizable funding from the Punjab government headed by Nawaz Sharif’s brother for charitable works, even though it and its leader, Hafiz Saeed, are on the United Nations list of terrorist organizations. Showing disdain for Indian sensitivities about his persona, his anti-India tirades and his involvement in the Mumbai attacks, Hafiz Saeed was allowed to lead the Eid prayers in Lahore in the Gaddafi stadium. Nawaz Sharif has also failed to initiate any new step to bring to justice those responsible for the Mumbai attacks.

When these facts are mentioned by a group of experts to advise the government not to show undue anxiety for a meeting at the prime-ministerial level in New York and for resuming the composite dialogue, as we would be playing into Nawaz Sharif’s hands and giving him in advance what he wants without any positive action on his part to set the stage for a renewed engagement, a former media adviser to the Prime Minister, representing the most puerile position of professional peaceniks in India, descends to a new low in making personal attacks against what he calls the “Punish Pakistan” school, questioning their professional integrity instead of refuting their arguments.

The fact is that Nawaz Sharif has presided over several negative developments, which, if overlooked, would signal that India is once again willing to tolerate Pakistan’s provocations without any dissuasive diplomatic or other response. If such indulgence has not produced any significant result so far, why persist in failed policies? When this is said, the ideological peaceniks distort the debate with imaginary accusations that those advocating a tougher approach to Pakistan are advocating war and that the call for thrashing Pakistan as an errant schoolboy will make India just like Pakistan — home to jingoism, xenophobia and rough patriotism.

This kind of intellectual chicanery is deplorable, as postponing the proposed meeting of the prime ministers at New York, delaying the resumption of the composite dialogue, seeking an end to state-sponsored terrorism and legal action against the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks, restoring the link between dialogue and terrorism, pressing for curbs on Hafiz Saeed, insisting on MFN status as a gauge of Pakistan’s readiness to normalize trade ties, retaliating locally against Pakistan’s ceasefire violations are the many steps in our panoply that can be taken. These are not acts of war against Pakistan, and only those with no grounding in diplomacy can be so obtuse to think that they are.

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