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Playing it cool with Delhi

The joint statement issued after the Ufa meeting between the prime ministers of India and Pakistan can be read, if you wear those kind of spectacles, as a bit one-sided – incorporating too much the Indian take on our relations. Terrorism and Mumbai stick out in it. There is no allusion to India fishing in our troubled waters.

With defter handling I think the statement could have been avoided. The two sides could have stressed their own concerns while addressing the media. The explanations now being given in Islamabad by the Pakistani interlocutors could have been given, to far better effect, in Ufa.

Still, the heavens have not fallen. Statements and communiqués come and go and they do not signify the end of the world. One of the lines being pressed in the Pakistani media that the language of the statement is so one-sided that it could be drafted in South Block, the Indian foreign office, is a bit unfair. South Block would have been in no hurry to affirm the readiness of the sides “to discuss all outstanding issues”. Such a formulation is broad enough to include everything, including the K word.

Even so, all said and done, the statement could either have been avoided or, from our point of view, formulated better. But the crowing in the Indian media that India has won some kind of a victory is misplaced and doesn’t sound right. Both countries would be better off without subjecting their already fraught relationship to such juvenile interpretations.

Pakistan of course can be petulant and aggressive. But what purpose would that serve?

We should be clear about what is at stake, and what is in our overriding interest. We are currently involved up to our necks along our western frontier: Fata and the Taliban havens on this and that side of the Durand Line. More than a third of our army is deployed there. That is our main axis, our main frontline…and let us not in any misplaced fit of jingoism forget that.

From this flows the obvious corollary: it is in our overwhelming interest to keep the eastern border – from Kashmir to the sea – calm and quiet. The war of words which recently erupted between our two countries was absurd and we could have done without it. The artillery exchanges along the Working Boundary – opposite Sialkot – were also unnecessary exercises in muscle-flexing.

The plain fact is that sabre-rattling on our eastern front, where historically Pak-India hostility has been centred, just doesn’t suit us – not at any time and certainly not at this juncture when all our energies should be concentrated along our western approaches.

Hitler’s animus towards communism and Russia was greater, much greater, than our hostility towards India, or India’s hostility towards us. But when the need arose, when he was preparing to attack Poland, he made peace with Stalin. And Stalin, to buy time and ward off the German threat, thought it best to make peace with Hitler. They were soon at each other’s throats, fighting the most destructive and ferocious war in history, but that’s another story.

The Ufa meeting opens the way for a limited engagement between India and Pakistan. By its very nature this engagement can spring no dramatic surprises. But any interaction, however modest or limited in scope, is better than needless rhetoric or raising the temperature.

We are caught up in something far tougher than our wars with India. Those typically lasted for 17 days, the extent of our stamina and endurance. Our war against religious extremism, as exemplified by the Taliban, is of much longer duration.

And we shouldn’t get worked up about trifles. If the Indian prime minister kept standing in his place and did not take a few steps towards the Pakistan prime minister as he came walking towards him that shows the Indian prime minister in a bad light. It is no sign of strength or great power status and Nawaz Sharif’s walking towards him was no sign of weakness. We should have the sense to realise that strength lies in other things.

If war is a continuation of diplomacy by other means, diplomacy is a continuation of war by other means (I think it was Zhou Enlai who said the latter). We’ll have a troubled relationship with India for the foreseeable future. That’s the way it is, a dictate of history and geography. But just as the US and China are in competition, and China and India are in competition, and both relationships not going to war as a consequence of that competition, it behoves India and Pakistan to ensure that their rivalry remains within civilised and pragmatic boundaries.

We need not give way to false sentiment. But neither must we fall prey to empty drumbeating. China and India have a serious border dispute, China laying claim to border areas and to the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. Yet both countries exchange goods worth 70-80 billion dollars every year, and this is set to increase. The US and China are the biggest trading partners in the world. Russia and the west are trading partners even as they are rivals on a number of issues. Rivalry need not be a zero-sum game. Shouldn’t this be our model?

Naked threats are no longer the currency of international relations. As Vladimir Putin was annexing Crimea, did he threaten anyone? Even as he wielded his big stick, he called out a soft tune. The Americans are given to talking tough. But their days of unrivalled, unchallenged superiority are over…partly thanks to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

India and Pakistan are given to empty sloganeering: Indian generals brandishing ‘cold start’ doctrines and Pakistani generals taking it as their bounden duty to say that any aggressor will pay a heavy price. Why do we have to say such things? We know what each side possesses. We have the measure of each other’s strength. Our films are bad enough. Why must supposedly responsible officials feel obliged to speak in language more suited to our films?

Pakistan needs to get some things right. We speak too loosely and too frequently of our nuclear capability. There should be a complete ban on this kind of talk. This should indeed be a taboo subject, as it is in Israel. The Israelis have a veritable nuclear arsenal, almost 200 warheads, and delivery capability to boot. But it is Israeli policy, across the political spectrum, not to mention, let alone talk loosely, of their nuclear capacity. Here at the slightest provocation everyone trots out the nuclear subject. This is an irresponsible attitude.

And we could improve the quality of our Foreign Office. We had world class diplomats once upon a time – who could hold their own against anyone. I am afraid, not any more. Let’s not take names but the quality today is poor. Tasnim Aslam, the former Foreign Office spokesperson, was good – in her case the all too rare marriage of style and brains. Why has she been removed? I point her out because we could do with more of her sort.

Another thing that could perhaps be borne in mind: there should be no place for phobias in foreign policy. I say we’ll have a problem with India because of size and proximity. It’s never comfortable lying with a camel in a tent, or next to an elephant. We should know how to guard our part of the tent. We certainly have the wherewithal to do so. But India phobia should now be a thing of the past. We should now be weighing things, or appraising them, in a different manner.

Email: bhagwal63@gmail.com

Ayaz Amir, "Playing it cool with Delhi," The News. 2015-07-14.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political relations , Political leaders , Ufa meeting , Pak-India relations , Kashmir issue , Mumbai stick , Terrorist attacks , Diplomacy-India , Nuclear capacity , Israeli policy , Pakistan-India border , Pakistan