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Old battles, new tactics

One step forward, two steps back. That’s how one can sum up the endless saga of India-Pakistan engagement – in six words. If hopeless romantics like us on both sides, who hoped things would change for the better with the change of guard in Islamabad – especially when the person in charge is cricket legend Imran Khan who has myriad friends and a massive fan following in India – well, we clearly lived in a world divorced from reality.

An overwhelming craving and constituency for peace on both sides notwithstanding, the forces of status quo prevailed once again.

It must be clear to everyone by now, if it wasn’t already, that there exists a strong lobby against peace and engagement between these South Asian neighbours and it is far more powerful than all the foolish dreamers of peace like us put together.

Hardly surprising then that the hard-nosed cynics in India’s foreign policy and military establishment, including the toady, obsequious media warriors, have been jumping up and down derisively dismissing Imran even before he took over.

After responding ostensibly positively to the offer of talks by the new leader elected with the mandate of a ‘Naya Pakistan’, the Narendra Modi government wasted no time in undermining him, derailing the talks scheduled to be held on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in New York.

Being the unconventional politician that he is, Imran was quick to respond to the slight by talking of facing “small men in big offices”.

While the subcontinental equation has always been volatile, things have never been so bad. The situation has progressively worsened since the BJP government took charge in India. Which was inevitable, I guess, given the historical baggage of the party and its leader – remember Gujarat 2002? – whose meteoric rise has been rooted in Muslim bashing. Indeed, Modi’s biggest populist appeal has seemingly been his anti-Muslim politics and, by extension, anti-Pakistan rhetoric.

Modi and the BJP have successfully employed and exploited the sentiment against Pakistan in successive elections, often linking it to the poor, politically and economically dispossessed Indian Muslims. Indeed, the more the BJP has struggled in successive elections, the more reckless and opportunistic its use of Pakistan has become, laying the blame for the neighbour’s support to Kashmiri militants at the door of hapless Indian Muslims.

As journalist Swati Chaturvedi puts it, Modi and Amit Shah, BJP chief, have weaponised the once carefully calibrated Indian foreign policy, making it a hostage to their own electoral exigencies.

Besides, it is not just Pakistan; even Bangladesh, India’s only friend and ally in the region, has not been an exception to this masculine foreign policy. Shah has been repeatedly threatening to throw out ‘crores of Bangladeshi ghuspeetye (interlopers)’ supposedly “eating away India’s resources like termites”. The speeches evoked a rare strong reaction even from the friendly government in Dhaka.

As if the elaborate charade of nation-wide celebrations of ‘Surgical Strikes Day’ on September 29 against Pakistan wasn’t enough, Indian Army Chief Bipin Rawat passionately batted for more “strikes” to teach the neighbour a lesson. Indian Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has boasted of “cutting off Pakistani heads” in an interview to a Hindi channel.

In the words of Chaturvedi, this head-hunting adventurism has totally infected India’s foreign policy under the BJP. So the recent diplomatic drama ahead of the UN encounter was clearly scripted and staged with eyes focused firmly on the all-important general elections in India next year.

And the message hasn’t been lost on Pakistan. Most Pakistani analysts have been quick to put two and two together, linking the surprising turnabout on the proposed talks to BJP’s electoral calculations.

Unlike the previous governments in New Delhi, this government, driven as it is by the Hindu supremacist ideology and delusions of grandeur viewing India as the new global hegemon and player on the world stage, is trying to recalibrate a whole new foreign policy, especially vis-à-vis Pakistan. It believes in steadily ignoring the western neighbour, refusing to treat it as an equal or a fellow nuclear power.

In an interesting piece in Dawn, Moeed Yusuf notices a turnaround in India’s Pakistan policy, talking of how Pakistani opinion makers are beginning to see India approaching the relationship with Pakistan with a longer time horizon in mind: “They have noticed a shift in the body language of Indian interlocutors. It is far more confident, if not arrogant, and fixated on the country’s upward trajectory. There are regular references to the growing economic and military differential between India and Pakistan and to comparisons with Nepal and Bangladesh when Pakistan is referenced. It’s an India that doesn’t feel a need to compromise with Pakistan anymore.”

According to this new approach, every time Pakistan brings up the wretched Kashmir issue or seeks resumption of peace talks, India would point to Islamabad’s support to the terrorist violence in Kashmir or some other such pretext. Indeed, India gains by ignoring Pakistan. New Delhi does not even have to pay in any way for not engaging the neighbour while Kashmir remains on the boil or slowly simmers with its star-crossed people pining for sanity and normalisation of ties.

In Yusuf’s words, if India can continue growing economically and diverting significant resources to defence while forcing Pakistan to remain wedded to a paradigm that prizes hard security over economic well-being, in a decade or two, the power differential will be so large that the only negotiation possible would be on the stronger party’s terms.

The analyst urges Pakistan to keep trying to improve its relationship with India and open channels of communication. Indeed, he calls for Pakistan to rejig the equation vis-à-vis India in view of the above factors.

First, Pakistan needs to continue offering India dialogue and be prepared for serious negotiations on all issues – regardless of India’s responses. India will eventually have to acquiesce to talking or its constant refusal will automatically begin to project Pakistan in a more positive light, argues Yusuf.

Second, Pakistan needs to reorient its thinking from geo-security to geo-economics. About the only way to develop a genuine Indian stake in Pakistan’s stability while gaining economically is to position Pakistan as a regional trade and transit hub. CPEC is the perfect start.

Allowing India access to Afghanistan and Central Asia, and fast-tracking of energy projects that flow from Central Asia to India could bring Pakistan significant transit fees and the much-needed economic benefits, spawning genuine economic interdependence.

Easier said than done, of course. However, in the long run, only commerce or common economic interests may defeat special interests and enemies of peace. After all, it was shared economic interests that helped Europe exorcise the demons of war and ultra-nationalism and fascism. Look at the immensely inspiring example of Germany, a country that was totally devastated during the World War II and was broken into two, and how it has successfully buried the past to fashion a whole new future for its people.

If Europe can move on to rebuild itself from its ashes – emerging as a global economic powerhouse – why can’t India and Pakistan do so as well? What prevents them from embracing peace in the interest of their people who have so much in common and are essentially the same at their core? South Asia desperately needs a paradigm shift.

Aijaz Zaka Syed, "Old battles, new tactics," The news. 2018-10-19.
Keywords: Political science , Conventional politician , Media warriors , General Assembly , Pakistani rhetoric , Foreign policy , Naya pakistan , Economic interest , Economic independence , India , Pakistan