Isolating the wrong bug

Published January 2, 2017

Bilaterally, 2016 was about India trying to isolate Pakistan over terrorism, but failing to convince any big player to stand with Delhi. Chinese President Xi Jinping, for instance, all but snubbed Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Goa summit of the five-nation BRICS leaders. He did not see the need to agree with Modi’s characterization of Pakistan as the mother-ship of terrorism.

There were murmurs in Islamabad about US President-elect Donald Trump. His pronounced Islamophobia would lead him into the Indian camp or so it was feared. A read-out of his chat with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif revealed the opposite; a surprisingly friendly Trump who not only likes Pakistanis but was looking forward to visiting the country.

And, finally, Zamir Kabulov, representing President Vladimir Putin at the Heart of Asia conference in Amritsar ticked off both India and Afghanistan for what appeared to be their coordinated criticism of Pakistan at the meet. Kabulov did one better. He praised the speech of foreign policy advisor Sartaj Aziz as a friendly one, and cautioned the participants against indulging in blame game over a critical issue in which everyone had an important stake.

Unwittingly for India, Pakistan scored three out of three on the issue of isolation. It was not an endorsement of everything Pakistan does or doesn’t do with terrorists but a reminder that international diplomacy is a more serious business than a persistent expression of prejudice as policy.

India was handed the consolation prize. It found the support of Afghanistan and Bangladesh for its charges of terrorism against Pakistan, which is not how Modi intended it to be. Let’s assume that Bhutan also stands with India as it does on most issues of its foreign policy. Has the outcome been a good one for India?

There are valid and not-so-valid reasons for Prime Minister Modi’s shifting approach towards Pakistan. He has to respond to acts of perceived terror from across the border. That is a given for any Indian leader, more so since the end of the Cold War when things turned overtly turbulent between the two.

That apart, there’s little else that can be cited as legitimate reason for not making progress with talks in 2017. It is fair criticism by India and others that Pakistan is either not able to rein in its extremist free agents or is unwilling to take up the issue seriously. These are the people that the world would happily want to isolate for Pakistan’s benefit and also for everyone’s own good.

And since India is currently focused on the isolation of Pakistan, it might consider paring down its objective to the nub of the problem, to the terror groups or their extremist cheerleaders who need to be tamed or shackled.

In order to make a genuine case about the free agents that disrupt bilateral ties, India may also wish to do something about freelancers like the Shiv Sena at home. It is galling to see movie actors and producers lining up at the doors of this or that self styled agent of national honor.

Does the state of India endorse Raj Thackeray and others who hate Pakistan and who would not allow the desirable cultural exchange between the two people? If it doesn’t see eye to eye with Thackeray but also lacks the political wherewithal to deal with him frontally, then it should be prepared to understand the frustrations of Pakistanis vis-a-vis the hate-filled Hafiz Saeed, among others. The new year could be about isolating the right viruses in both the countries.

The year 2016 began for India-Pakistan ties with a damaging terror attack on the Pathankot Airbase on January 2. It predictably ground to a halt their already iffy dialogue. More attacks and claims of retributive surgical strikes across the LoC during the year made it only worse for both.

To complicate matters, the Indian prime minister has proved to be a man of shifting moods for want of a better explanation. He calls and meets Prime Minister Sharif at will. Then he shuns him and wrecks their peace talks – again at will.

Reasons for Modi’s behavior range wildly. They have included a crucial state poll of domestic utility or the Pakistani envoy in Delhi sharing a cup of tea with the Hurriyat leaders. But then there was also a provocative attack or two on Indian army camps in Kashmir and elsewhere. All these were, however, factored in previous agreements between the two as a pre-existing condition. They had agreed not to let terrorists manipulate their bilateral ties.

The Lahore Agreement was signed in the shadow of a cold-blooded massacre in Kashmir. The Mumbai terror attack ironically produced the Sharm el-Sheikh agreement. That’s how mature nations manage their affairs. Even if a reasonable agreement or two end up with a brief shelf life, it is a move forward and not a regression.

It is not that Pakistan- India ties are horribly intractable or that they are perpetually doomed. The seemingly incurable Kashmir issue was primed for resolution in Agra. There is no valid reason to believe that horrific bloodletting of the kind we are seeing in Kashmir today is the only way forward between the two in 2017. So what if they both looked inextricably doomed in 2016.



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