Peace talks drained of colour

There was a certain eerie inevitability about the pre-dawn attack in the outer perimeter of the Pathankot air force base in the early hours of Saturday. From the day Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his unscheduled stopover in Lahore on Christmas day to wish Nawaz Sharif on his birthday, it was clear that the unreconstructed jihadis in Pakistan would try and stage a dramatic terrorist attack somewhere in India. This has been the pattern for long. The only difference is that since the Lahore visit took everyone by surprise, the attack happened after the two leaders had met. In more normal circumstances, the so-called fidayeen attack would have been taken place prior to the meeting.

EXPERIENCE has taught the Indian authorities a simple truth about engagement with Pakistan: it is imprudent to let your guard down. The legendary Pakistani sense of hospitality that never fails to wow the peaceniks in India must always be balanced with the deep hostility towards India and everything we stand for.

It is for security experts and the intelligence agencies to determine whether the attack was masterminded by the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba or the Jaish-e-Mohammed. It is a matter of detail. What is more important is for both the Indian government and those anxious to nudge India-Pakistan relations towards a greater degree of normalcy to realise that the process is never going to be trouble free. Apart from the fact that there is a large body of opinion inside Pakistan that doesn’t want to ease military pressure on India, there is an important section of the Pakistani state apparatus — this includes both the civilian and military wings — that will always facilitate subversion within India.

We do not as yet know how the suicide squad that staged the attack in Pathankot entered India. But needless to say, it should occasion no real surprise if inquiries lead to the conclusion that its infiltration into India—whether through the surreptitious crossing of the Line of Control or through other means — was facilitated by state agencies in Pakistan. Experience has taught the Indian authorities a simple truth about engagement with Pakistan: it is imprudent to let your guard down. The legendary Pakistani sense of hospitality that never fails to wow the peaceniks in India must always be balanced with the deep hostility towards India and everything we stand for.

There are many good reasons, apart from cricket, why a greater measure of normalcy in bilateral relations is good for both countries. Nawaz Sharif, being a canny Punjabi businessman, no doubt appreciates the importance of cross-border trade. A sustained period of trade will give businesses on both sides of the Radcliffe Line a stake in each other’s economy. That, in turn, is calculated to be a deterrent against adventurism.

However, it is obvious that these commercial impulses are a minority current inside Pakistan — as both Atal Behari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif discovered to their cost after the exhilarating bus diplomacy of 1999.

First, it is clear that the state in Pakistan is deeply fractured and moves in contradictory directions. The civilian-military divide is only one part of the problem. The growth of Islamism has introduced a new dimension, and this radical ideology has infected both the military and civil society.

Second, a large section of the Pakistan elite has very divided loyalties, with one foot in the West and the other inside Pakistan. Consequently, its willingness to confront Islamism has been seriously diluted since it has other options. The international community, not least India, needs a vibrant Pakistani elite that has a stake in the future of its own country. At present, this desire is overshadowed by the desperation to create personal safe havens in either the West or in the Gulf countries.

Finally, Pakistan’s over-dependence on military and economic assistance from other power, notably the US and China, has created a policy distortion. Whether it was Zia-ul-Haq after the Soviet Union’s invasion of Pakistan in 1980 or Pervez Musharraf after the 9/11 attacks on the American mainland, there is an inclination on the part of Pakistan’s rulers to leverage geography to maximum effect. The lavish flow of non-internally generated resources has bred a cynicism inside Pakistan based on the ‘too big to fail’ principle. On its part, Pakistan has exploited big power rivalries and its status as an Islamic state to fund its anti-India adventurism.

It is unlikely that all these factors that bear down on India-Pakistan relations will change in a hurry. The US may be happy that it played a modest role in facilitating the personal bonding between the top political leaders but unless it can use its clout in the larger Pakistani Establishment to temper, if not snap, the military’s links with jihadi organisations, India-Pakistan relations will be back to where it was three months ago. Washington will also have to guard against Pakistan’s inclination to leverage its sweetheart relationship with China to play one big power against another.

Frankly speaking, as far as India-Pakistan relations are concerned, the ball is in Pakistan’s court. For the moment, India can afford to modify its ‘benign neglect’ of its western neighbour and give Nawaz Sharif some time to establish himself politically. But if provocative actions persist, it will have no option but to persist with prolonged disengagement. The Lahore visit did not signal instant bonhomie, except at a personal level. What it did indicate is that India is willing to sit across the table with Pakistan and ensure that cross-border tensions are reduced. However, there is need for demonstrable reciprocity. There is a domestic constituency in India for normalcy. But equally there is an undercurrent of exasperation with a neighbour that often displays a perverse desire to needle India and look for ways to settle the scores of history.

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