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A softening veto

May 25, 2014


MODI tried to pull a fast one on Nawaz, and Pakistan. But Nawaz bit the bullet and may yet salvage the situation.

At least that’s the view here in the quarters that matter.

When the invitation came, it flummoxed the Nawaz camp. They’d really, really rather it not have come. Not at this time. Not in this way.

The civ-mil and internal situation was complicated enough. Now, the Nawaz camp felt, a hawk had tried to corner them. A trap had been sprung.

Huh? How does that work?

Nawaz has gambled. He’s called the Modi bluff.

A rejected invitation would have given Modi the perfect excuse: look, I tried, but there’s no one over there who can or will talk to us.

The upshot: the nationalist Modi would look magnanimous and yet not have to cede anything.

Normalisation would have been chucked into cold storage for a year or two. Modi would have been able to concentrate on his domestic agenda uninterrupted.

And Pakistan would have looked petty and venal on the global stage.

But Nawaz wants normalisation and he doesn’t want to wait a year or two. So he has gambled. He’s called the Modi bluff.

The upside? Modi can’t now baulk and still pin all the blame on Pakistan.

The downside? Possible yet-more friction with the boys.

But Nawaz has chosen. He’s going to Delhi. Which means the question here is, can Nawaz change the civ-mil dynamics at home?

When it comes to India and dealing with the civilians at home, the boys have developed a new strategy: the soft veto.

The soft veto is the boys letting the civilians test their ideas, but quietly — never overtly — discouraging the stuff they really don’t approve of.

It works something along the lines of: go ahead, do your thing, try your ideas — we won’t get in the way unless we think you haven’t really thought through the implications of what you’re doing.

Of course, both the civs and the boys have thought through the implications — but the two sides disagree fundamentally on a couple of things: the pace at which the implications will play out and the degree to which they should.

Yet, the soft veto itself betrays an opportunity: if there weren’t, the blunt and direct hard veto would be preferred and still in use.

What exactly is the opportunity though?

To begin with, the system has moved on somewhat. There is space for the civilians: the boys just can’t say no and expect that to automatically carry the day.

For immediate reference, have a look at the Musharraf trial and the TTP dialogue. Add going to India for Modi’s inauguration now.

But, as Nawaz has proved and may now be trying to unprove, the civilians have their own priorities — which means they won’t necessarily or swiftly capitalise on the space the system has created for them.

Yet, if the civilians don’t — or won’t — raise their game, could the soft veto itself be set for a further softening?

The soft veto itself is born of two different, if not quite opposing, views among the boys on India: the hawkish view and the moderate one.

The hawks’ view is simple: cold peace. You, India, do your thing; we, Pakistan, do our thing — and never shall the twain meet.

Strong, muscular army; just-enough trade; controlled visa regime; arms-length cooperation on an issue-to-issue basis; and never, ever giving up on a just and equitable settlement on Kashmir.

Since Mumbai, the hawks have been in the ascendant. Because an angry India is a threatening India.

The moderates though continue to exist. And, paradoxically, this may be their time.

The moderates view is a relative one, arguably ideology blunted by pragmatism, and can also be summed up neatly: Pakistan is falling behind India.

Yes, there must be a just and equitable settlement on Kashmir, but nothing just nor equitable happens to anyone who falls far behind a rival.

Yes, India was, is and will remain the country Pakistan has to worry about the most, but those worries will only compound themselves if India pulls away too much.

Economically. Diplomatically. Militarily. Pulling away, far, far away. India hasn’t done it yet, but what if it does?

Originally, the moderates’ concern focused on India growing several times at the rate Pakistan was.

But as India’s growth slowed, Pakistan’s internal security problems pulled it even lower, which meant the relative gap remained wide — troublingly wide, perhaps on its way to irreversibly wide, as far as the moderates were concerned.

The move from the hard veto to the soft veto had much to do with the moderates’ view. It made military/security sense and the hawks were not too threatened because they still had their veto.

Now though a triple whammy may be upon us, strengthening the moderates’ case and possibly softening the hawks’ veto further.

The domestic situation is bad and Afghanistan will be in flux again. So Pakistan is likely stuck in a trough for a while. But what if Modi does exactly what he campaigned on? Ie, gets India to soar again.

The relative gap — the Pak-India gap that concerns the moderates so — would widen into a chasm. And just when a Hindu nationalist is in power.

Everything the moderates, the pragmatist-ideologues, have ever feared could come together in one, big terrible mess of a bang.

So why not hold off on the veto and see what Nawaz can get out of Modi?

This could be the moderates’ time, finally.

Now, if only Nawaz knew how to make nice with the hawks.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm