Originally Published 2013-08-27 13:37:02 Published on Aug 27, 2013
Why do Indian and Pakistani leaders succumb to the predictable? There's so much déjà vu about their peace process being derailed by border firings and terrorist strikes that the wider world has begun to yawn
Elusive Peace, Inclusive Aggression
"Nawaz Sharif's electoral victory in May 2013 had generated a great deal of optimism regarding the prospects for India-Pakistan relations. It was felt that the democratic transition in Pakistan would also mark the beginning of a new phase in the bilateral relations. However, the recent tensions along the Line of Control (LoC), sparked off by the killing of five Indian soldiers and followed by a volley of accusations from both sides, has once again highlighted the tenuous nature of the India-Pakistan peace process. The recent experience has been that any progress towards better relations ends up jeopardised by events that tend to fuel sentiments on both sides making it difficult to sustain a genuine comprehensive dialogue. The skirmish along the LoC has also brought to the forefront the obstacles that continue to derail any significant and durable improvement in bilateral relations.

Two Pakistans

For starters, it shows the existence of two different camps within Pakistan that have differing views on improving relations with India. While an increasing number of commentators from Pakistan have stressed the change in perception within Pakistan towards India and the growing realisation that better ties with India would be in Pakistan's interests, a strong lobby continues to thrive within Pakistan that is deeply sceptical about any overtures made towards India. The inclination of the Pakistan government to improve relations with India, and signals from the new Indian Foreign Secretary that New Delhi would resume the peace talks, could have provoked this group to orchestrate the attack on the LoC to derail any potential dialogue between the two countries.

The apparent contradiction within Pakistan is a reflection, and consequence, of the imbalance in civil-military relations and the large degree of control that the military has over Pakistan's foreign policy, especially its relations with India. During Nawaz Sharif's second tenure as Prime Minister in the 1990s, the civilian government's attempts to reach out to India were not appreciated by the military establishment and are said to be one of the factors that soured its relations with Nawaz Sharif. The Pakistan military has traditionally viewed India as posing an existential threat to Pakistan and have used this threat perception to cement its preeminent place in Pakistan's power structure. In fact, even though General Kayani publicly stated that India was no longer perceived as the biggest threat to Pakistan, he also told Nawaz Sharif to go slow on India and only take gradual initiatives towards improving relations. Thus, the Pakistan military is still wary about better relations with India and certain groups within the Establishment may be keen to sustain the low-scale war against India. It is unlikely that one can expect a genuine shift in Pakistan's policy towards India until there is greater assertion by the civilian government over the military.

Indian detractors

India also has its fair share of detractors, mostly from the military and intelligence set-ups, who are opposed to the idea of engaging with Pakistan. Such opposition is based on scepticism about Pakistan's sincerity in normalising relations and memories of Pakistan's past transgressions. Incidents like ceasefire violations along the LoC tend to strengthen the claim of these sceptics. Apart from these ceasefire violations, the recent attacks on the Indian consulate in Jalalabad, for which both India and Afghanistan have blamed Pakistan, and reports suggesting that the ISI may push jihadi elements into Kashmir post-the NATO drawdown in Afghanistan do nothing to change this perception.

The sceptics in India and the belligerent reaction to such incidents also tend to create an environment that is not conducive to push forward the peace process. Following the latest LoC incident, the political opposition and media in India went into a frenzy denouncing Pakistan and the Indian government for its apparent soft approach to Pakistan. The BJP, in particular, issued statements stressing that there can be "no business as usual" with Pakistan and urged the UPA government to call off talks with Pakistan. There have also been calls to take "sterner measures" against Pakistan and allowing the Indian military to respond in kind to ceasefire violations. The opposition to Pakistan also found expression through anti-Pakistan slogans and protests outside the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi and the 'mobbing' of the Delhi-Lahore bus, interestingly by the youth wing of the ruling party.

Such aggressive rhetoric advocating an eye for an eye and a belligerent environment is a clear case of political opportunism to put the government on the back foot with less than one year to go for the general elections. It tends to push the government into a corner making it difficult for it to engage constructively with Pakistan. A similar environment earlier this year when similar clashes had taken place along the LoC had compelled Manmohan Singh to issue a stern warning to Pakistan and suspend peace talks. Moreover, in an effort to demonstrate that it was taking some measures against Pakistan, the government suspended, albeit temporarily, the visa liberalisation scheme and cancelled the participation of Pakistani nationals in a number of cultural events.

The government's reaction this time round is not very different. The Defence Minister, AK Antony, was forced by pressure from the media and the Opposition to lay the blame for the incident on the Pakistan military, retracting his initial statement which had given the government-military establishment some leeway. It remains to be seen whether such pressure would prevent Manmohan Singh from holding talks with Nawaz Sharif in September on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting.

It is important, at this stage, for the Indian government not to give in to such public outrage and emotions and to deal with Pakistan in a pragmatic and mature manner. Nawaz Sharif has expressed his interest in reviving the peace process and responding to such overtures could strengthen the existing constituency within Pakistan that is eager to normalise relations with India. Failure to do so, thus, could represent a significant loss of opportunity and further derail the peace process. It is also important for the two countries to deal with the various bilateral issues separately and not allow problems in one area to hijack progress made on other fronts. In particular, progress in the cultural and economic sphere that promote people-to-people interaction and, thus, can be promoted as confidence building measures should be immunised against the political and security problems in the bilateral relations.

(The writer is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)

Courtesy: The Pioneer, 24 August 2013 "
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