Monday, July 20, 2009

Realism (no, really)

The piece below appeared on Outlookindia.com; I had written it in light of the Sharm al-Sheikh declaration following the meeting of the Indian and Pakistani Prime Ministers on the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Movement summit.

The joint statement issued by the Indian and Pakistani governments in light of Manmohan Singh's and Yusuf Raza Gilani's meeting at the Non Aligned Movement ("NAM") summit in Sharm al-Sheilk in July was followed by more-than-usual breast-beating in the opposition ranks, and some sections of the Indian media. India, we were told, had surrendered to Pakistan by agreeing that "progress on terrorism" (i.e. efforts against terrorism) should not be linked to the broader "composite" Indo-Pak dialogue process.
India had apparently compounded the magnitude of its surrender by agreeing to discuss Balochistan: a first for India-Pakistan talks, and one that was quickly seen as an admission by India that Pakistani claims (principally, it must be noted, by way of insinuations in the media and anonymous leaks, rather than official charges) about its eastern neighbour's involvement in the secessionist movement in Balochistan were well-founded. Given that American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was scheduled to visit India soon after the Sharm al-Sheikh meeting, two and two were readily put together: India's UPA government had kowtowed to American pressure to resume talks with Pakistan.

The resulting outcry -- which forced Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the Congress spin doctors to claim, somewhat incoherently, that the Indo-Pak declaration did not mean what everyone thought it meant -- was all the more shrill because, on this issue, the UPA was vulnerable to attack from both left and right. From the Left Front's perspective, the affair showed yet again that the Congress was unable to resist American pressure (that this supposed pressure bore fruit on the sidelines of a NAM summit must have been salt in those wounds). To the BJP, the UPA had yet again shown "softness" on terrorism and vis-à-vis Pakistan.

In sum, all sides could agree that whatever one made of the declaration, the government's public relations machinery had flunked its first major foreign policy challenge since the UPA's May election victory. But was the substance of the declaration really as bad for India as the opposition parties and sections of the English-language media claimed?

Discussion of these matters is complicated by the continuing tendency -- in both India and Pakistan -- to see the peace process as a zero-sum game; thus, once the Pakistani media hailed the declaration as vindication of Pakistan's stand since last November's Mumbai attacks, certain segments of the Indian media reacted predictably (conversely, had the Indian media praised the very same declaration, the reaction in Pakistan would have been decidedly grumpier).

This sort of attitude serves as a reminder of how superficial the nearly half decade-long peace process has remained, and, as I have argued elsewhere, is sustained by the tendency of the Indian and Pakistani establishments to keep their publics in the dark on the peace process (beyond the mere fact of the process' existence). But perhaps even more significant, where the Indian political and public reaction is concerned, is the absence of realism in the country's foreign policy discourse; more accurately, by the disconnect between the Indian establishment's apparent (realist) views, and a public debate that is almost utterly bereft of such considerations.

First, it is unclear what India has "given up", or if what has been conceded had any value to begin with. The suggestion is that de-linking Pakistan's progress against terrorism from the broader dialogue process signs away India's strongest card, with nothing in return except promises by the Pakistani government, of the sort that the latter has made before (and failed to keep). This card, it must be said, is not worth the piece of paper it was purportedly printed on -- by now. That is, the Indian government used it fairly effectively in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks, combining it with an international diplomatic offensive to pressure Pakistan into taking some steps against those responsible for the attacks.

Combined with rising global concerns about the Pakistani Taliban, Pakistan was on the back foot on both "fronts." However, such a card necessarily yields diminishing returns over time, and cannot be used indefinitely. That is, conditioning the peace process on Pakistan's anti-terrorism efforts can be a tactic -- not a permanent policy, unless the peace process were something Pakistan wanted or needed far more than India. But this is not the case: while true that Pakistan's more modest economic trajectory over the last decade renders the process of Indo-Pak peace more economically valuable to it (for instance, the country is highly unlikely to maximize its foreign investment potential in the absence of an enduring peace), India too needs the peace process quite badly.

Despite significant progress made by successive Indian governments over the past two decades in "de-hyphenating" India from Pakistan in the eyes of the Western world, the reality is that India cannot secede from its geo-political neighbourhood. Pride in economic growth, democracy, and a rosier future relative to some other countries in South Asia, is all well and good, but should not blind us: terrorism, environmental degradation, water disputes, and insurgencies by alienated segments of the population, are regional issues, and bleed across sub-continental borders.

Indeed, when it comes to terrorism, Indians implicitly accept that in the absence of Indo-Pak peace, there will almost certainly be more terrorist attacks: that is, if the Pakistani army/intelligence agencies really do continue to sponsor anti-India terrorist groups, it is only logical that such activity will increase in the absence of a credible peace process -- with disastrous consequences for India's society and economy.

Indeed, even events outside India's borders regularly cause such adverse consequences: for instance, it is highly unlikely that the IPL would have been shifted to South Africa had the Sri Lankan team not been attacked in Lahore; England's initial reluctance to resume their cricket tour of India after the Mumbai attacks; the New Zealand cricket board's reluctance to clear its players for the IPL before the tournament was shifted; and the Australian tennis authorities' more recent refusal to send players to Chennai, demonstrate that hermetic sealing is not an option.

As for events within India -- such as the Mumbai attacks last November -- one doesn't need to look at the data to know that the country's tourism sector was hit badly in the aftermath. Conversely, if Pakistan-based terrorist groups are not operating at anyone's "official" beck and call, holding up the broader dialogue process until Pakistan achieves that which it seems to be unable to achieve even vis-à-vis groups that are targeting the Pakistani state itself, seems irrelevant.

In a nutshell, the issue is simple: to the extent the Pakistani state has leeway over anti-India terrorist groups, it is not going to take firm action against them in the absence of a process leading to an ultimate Indo-Pak deal. As the "revisionist" power in the sub-continental geo-political equation, and conventionally weaker than the "status quo" power (India), these groups serve as Pakistan's strongest cards. On the other hand, the India-Pakistan disparity does not favour India to such an extent that it can harbour realistic hopes of "solving" the problem militarily (assuming anyone could do that, since the terrorist groups India complains of are located all over Pakistan, and are hardly in some localized region; more recently, one sees that even the United States has faced great difficulties in countering such groups in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite the advantages of a full-blown occupation).

Indeed, India's conventional military advantage over Pakistan has been significantly blunted in the wake of the country's (in my view, unwise) decision to test nuclear weapons in 1998; it is not difficult to appreciate that the belief that a full-fledged war between nuclear-armed Pakistan and India was rendered unlikely by the countries' nuclear status, might even have "liberated" much low-level instability: Kargil, it must be noted, would have been unthinkable in the pre-1998 era unless Pakistan were willing to fight a full-scale war with India. And to the extent the Pakistani state does not have leeway over anti-India terror groups, the best chance of motivating it to move against those groups is if Pakistan can deflect public criticism that it is "acting at India's behest" by pointing to progress on the diplomatic front.

Those criticizing the Indian government for the Sharm al-Sheikh declaration essentially want it to remain wedded to the least productive course of action: not talk to Pakistan, while simultaneously minimizing Pakistan's incentives to act; and all in a situation where India lacks the power to make the Pakistani government act as it wishes (it is unclear if any country could do so, but to the extent the US can, India is unlikely to be able to get America to exert pressure on its behalf without directly implicating the US in the Kashmir dispute -- a development India would be suspicious of, and has consistently resisted).

Second, the significance of the "concession" is itself being overblown, based on the theoretical possibility that the peace process would move forward, even if Pakistan took no action against anti-India terror groups. This is downright silly: where on earth would such a peace process progress to? Both the Indian and Pakistani governments have to be aware that no peace deal over Kashmir, Sir Creek, or the Siachen glacier, could be viable in an atmosphere of continued attacks in India emanating from Pakistani soil. The Sharm al-Sheikh declaration cannot change the political reality that no deal can be sold to the Indian public under such circumstances (the opposition outcry against the declaration might even be seen as confirmation of this). If the Pakistani establishment were to genuinely believe that the declaration means that the terrorism issue is off the table, it would simply be deluding itself.

Third, there is the question of hypocrisy. When in or (in the case of the Left) close to power, the opposition parties have done pretty much the same thing they now criticize the present government for. Indeed, it was the BJP-led NDA government that initiated the peace process with Pakistan -- despite the fact that no progress had been made for years in apprehending those responsible for the 1993 Bombay blasts; or the likes of Masood Azhar and Omar Sheikh, freed from Indian jails in exchange for the passengers aboard an Indian Airlines plane.

In fact, these alleged criminals seem to have been operating in Pakistan with great impunity: a Pakistani news channel carried footage of Masood Azhar's wedding in Multan; and the Pakistani magazine Newsline carried pictures of Dawood Ibrahim's new passport, after the Pakistani government denied knowledge of the whereabouts of the two. It is common knowledge that Dawood Ibrahim and several close associates (mostly Indian citizens to boot, and thus theoretically not subject to any complications arising from Pakistan's transfer of its own citizens to Indian custody) live in Karachi. If the Sharm al-Sheikh declaration is wrong-headed, it is no more so than the peace process initiated by the NDA, and perpetuated by the Left-supported first UPA government.

Of course, there is a method to the madness: the NDA, UPA, and Left all recognize the obvious, namely that no progress is possible on anything -- be it terrorism, Kashmir, or the Indus water dispute -- absent dialogue between India and Pakistan. Yet, in a conspiracy of cynicism and silence, the opposition parties further degrade the political discourse by means of hysteria, chest-thumping, and empty posturing (the UPA would doubtless have done the same had the NDA been in power at present).

But there is no shame in accepting reality, even if the government of the day lacks the courage to defend on honest grounds what it has quite reasonably done. Simply put, leaving all ethical and moral issues aside, both India and Pakistan lack the power to make the other country give in to their ideal solutions to the disputes bedevilling relations between the two countries. Yet each possesses enough power to de-stabilize the other and hold its polity hostage to a fear psychosis. Under such circumstances, hard-nosed realists would see that there is no alternative to dialogue, and to the peace process (however meagre and superficial) begun five years ago. A pity so many prefer to live in a dream world.

5 comments:

karachi khatmal said...

superbly written

too bad your voice is on the fringe of the media, it represents what every diplo should be thinking

Anonymous said...

y this picture on ur homepage? any particular reason?

Qalandar said...

Anonymous: I assume you are referring to the picture in the banner? If so, that's from a recent trip to Varanasi (I periodically change these; the one prior to that had been of a train station clock).

rks said...

Probably the banner gives a conflicting image of yours to people who don't know you personally :)

My only problem with picture is that, it should be in landscape mode.

Qalandar said...

It would look better in landcsape mode (it is set as my desktop pic at the moment! Looks great), but I can't do that...

I will keep changing the banner pic periodically...but anyone who reads my blog would find nothing odd about this :-)