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The blind men and the elephant

December 31, 2011

Prime Ministers Yousuf Raza Gilani and Manmohan Singh, Mohali, March 30. - AFP Photo

The Arab world fought for freedom, Europe threatened to come to pieces and India and Pakistan took tenuous steps toward peace Can two nuclear-armed states that share a tense land border and a habit of snarling at each other begin to resolve any of their problems through a cricket match or two? Or will their relations improve by outsourcing an intractable peace dialogue to their business elites?

If the answer to the two questions is yes, then India-Pakistan relations were cruising to new heights this year. The two countries met in Mohali in the semi-final stage of the 2011 cricket World Cup. And by year’s end, trade concessions hinted at by both sides were hailed as having the potential to open the floodgates for billions of dollars of trade between them. Throw in the headline-grabbing freshness of Hina Rabbani Khar, Pakistan’s new foreign minister, celebrated in India as a fashion diva of sorts, and we had an idyllic promise of durable bonhomie.

But the unflinching India-Pakistan standoff is an industry with a proven self-perpetuating interest for stakeholders. The interested parties may range from the cash-rich army headquarters on both sides to the cash-strapped porter on the Wagah-Attari border. The latter earns his keep often by bailing out an unlucky passenger stranded at the check post for any one of many silly bureaucratic reasons.

Bureaucracies are not only about harassing stranded passengers, of course. They are perfectly capable of tripping up their powerful leaders. They acquire reputations and, sometimes, sinister names. Inter-Services Intelligence is Pakistan’s ‘deep state’, the Intelligence Bureau India’s ‘system’. Don’t trifle with them. They have the wherewithal to render formal agreements between heads of state worthless pieces of paper.

Under the circumstances is there anything at all to indicate that the promise of 2011 will not dissipate the way Sharm el Sheikh did the other day? Years before the Thimphu spirit wafted into their midst, India and Pakistan had promised to open consulates in Mumbai and Karachi by a specific time. Remember that? They had declared in the same breath at the highest levels that their peace process was irreversible. The real powers didn’t like that one bit. We know what became of the lofty resolve.

Prescriptions on managing ties are galore. They resemble the story of the blind men and the elephant. Ask Rahat Fateh Ali Khan about how relations could improve and the popular Pakistani singer will be guided by his recent unhappy experience in Delhi. He was lionised by India’s fawning audiences in February but rudely laid low by Indian customs.

What could we do to improve the liaison between the audiences and customs so that a future artiste doesn’t get humiliated at the airport? The answer is impossible to locate, if only because it would require both countries to rip apart their hidebound habit of corruption that shores up a formidable parallel economy. Khan was a victim of that economy. Defence deals, chiefly those keeping India and Pakistan in the crosshairs, are its beneficiaries.

Frustrated by these systems, the people naturally look to readily available sublimation. Thus the most widely watched event in both countries this year was the Mohali fixture in which the Indian and Pakistani teams clashed, not a meeting of their leaders in this or that corner of the globe.

The Mohali grounds, not very far from the Pakistan border, saw the prime ministers of both countries in a warm embrace. They shook hands with the teams and watched the toss and applauded each other’s cricket stars. The sheer scale of the security cordon thrown around the event betrayed, however, a more realistic sense of the issues dogging Yusuf Raza Gilani and Manmohan Singh.

But there is something more terrorising for the leaders than the terror of armed bigots. Both are victims of their wayward domestic politics, which make any peace resolution they draft exude the image of an imposing building on crumbling grounds. They are transient folks. The system and the deep state are here to stay.

— Jawed Naqvi is Dawn’s correspondent in New Delhi