A shaky dialogue

28 Jul 2011

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Pakistan's Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar looks on during a visit to the shrine of Muslim Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia in New Delhi on July 28, 2011. India and Pakistan's foreign ministers insisted relations were back on track July 27 after peace talks that highlighted a "new era" of cooperation over the ruptures of the past. – AFP Photo

IT looked good, it sounded good — and in the fraught world of Pak-India relations, that was probably good enough, for now.

The young Pakistani princess outshone her dapper Indian counterpart; the media was agog; and the outside world looked on approvingly. So are the constituencies for peace in India and Pakistan back with a bang? Not quite.

What this week has been about is atmospherics and optics. Make the environment in which talks are conducted more congenial and make all the noises necessary to reassure the other side of interest in talks — without ceding anything meaningful on any front.

Improving atmospherics and optics is nothing to scoff at when you’re talking about a six-decade-old problem to rival any other on the global stage. But Pakistan and India have been down this road many times before. It is reasonable to ask, will this time be any different?

On the Indian side, the peace constituency appears to have been bolstered by at least four things. The Indian PM and his national security adviser are still keen on better ties with Pakistan. The US is pushing for an improvement in Pak-India relations because of the potential regional dividends.

India has realised that the post-Mumbai attempt to diplomatically isolate Pakistan was a bad idea because the rest of the world doesn’t see Pakistan through an Indian lens. And India wants to see the Mumbai perpetrators brought to justice, something unlikely to ever occur if India disengages Pakistan.

But the first real public test for the peace constituency in India will come when it has to push domestically for a deal on some of the mid-level stuff, a deal on Sir Creek perhaps or more improbably, Siachen.

Another significant opportunity will come in private, when the contours of the post-American future of Afghanistan begin to get fleshed out in the months ahead. If India and Pakistan accommodate each other there, or at least refrain from intractable stubbornness, the dialogue between India and Pakistan would get a boost.Sitting here in Pakistan, though, it’s difficult to predict whether the supporters of dialogue on the Indian side will prevail or not.

Not that it’s any easier predicting stuff about the Pakistani side.

Hina Rabbani may bring a touch of soft power, Salman Bashir may talk tough, Shahid Malik may look tough, but the real power lies in the hands of the generals. And it’s hard to say what they are ultimately thinking. At least this much is clear, though: keeping relations with India on the boil at the moment isn’t in the army’s interest.

With so many irons in the fire — fending off the US, salvaging a domestic reputation tattered in recent months, trying to recover internal security, figuring out what’s next in Afghanistan, cash drying up — stoking the fires with India doesn’t really make sense.

But India-centricness remains. The generals’ stripes are too deep to scrub out and a ‘cold peace’ is the most the generals have been able to contemplate in terms of concessions to an opponent they viscerally mistrust and are suspicious of.

Cold peace would amount to conjoined twins staring off in different directions, interacting with the rest of the world on separate terms, ignoring cooperative solutions that would benefit both and each quietly watching for any harm directed its way from the other side.

So, are the generals just buying time and space for themselves by letting the civilians and bureaucrats talk peace but keeping them on a very short leash, hoping ultimately to return to competing strategically or perhaps forcing a cold peace?

History suggests the generals are unlikely to have changed their stripes. And with the civilian government having surrendered the national security and foreign policy domains to the uniformed lot, there’s little pressure on the generals to change their minds, if not mindsets.

Reality, however, can have its own way of intervening.

We threaten India, India threatens us — historically, the spill-over of conflict has been limited. But with the addition of nuclear weapons, the rise of India and the terrorism problem in Pakistan, along with sorting out Afghanistan in the medium term, the relationship has taken on a new dimension.

When the relationship between India and Pakistan was at its lowest ebb following the stand-off over prosecution of the Mumbai plotters in Pakistan, it was the US that was essentially keeping the two sides talking to each other.

And as far as the US is concerned, economic integration of the region, stretching from Central Asia to India with Afghanistan and Pakistan in between could be just the right tonic to reduce strategic tensions in the region.

The generals have always resisted economic integration with India, arguing that political issues have to be resolved before economic opportunities can be tapped.

But as the economy continues to sag and the effects of that continue to spread deeper and wider, business and trade interests may become more vocal in their demands. Economic integration — trade and investment opportunities from roaring India — remains the one element that has the potential of transforming the relationship between India and Pakistan, and undercutting the generals’ view of the relationship.

Interestingly, an attempt within the last year by big business to convince the generals of the merits of trade with India was initially met with a cautious nod of approval. But then, when the plan was ready to be unveiled to the public, the generals pulled the plug.

So as atmospherics and optics are improved in the latest round of dialogue, perhaps there is also an opening for a significant and long-lasting success: more trade and investment between India and Pakistan.

The writer is a member of staff.

cyril.a@gmail.com