Stakes in peace

Published : Jun 06, 2003 00:00 IST

Vajpayee and his entourage with Nawaz Sharif at the Wagah border on February 20, 1999, on the Indian Prime Minister's arrival there by the "bus to Lahore". - SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

Vajpayee and his entourage with Nawaz Sharif at the Wagah border on February 20, 1999, on the Indian Prime Minister's arrival there by the "bus to Lahore". - SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

The civilian component of the Paksitani regime is sensitive to the benefits of a normal relationship with India, but it would take a great deal of courage and political acumen for it to defy the military and take a different approach on the "core issue".

IN the early 1990s a senior Pakistani politician, who shall remain unnamed even though he held a very important post at that time, recounted for a few Indian journalists the memories of a road trip that he had made from Lahore to New Delhi. As he spoke of the motels and restaurants and bars that he had visited on the way, a wistfulness, almost a longing for something very near but out of reach, was discernible in his voice. These reminiscences stood out in stark counter-point to the rest of a discussion, which was consumed by the tedious rhetoric and repetitious arguments that pass for an India-Pakistan dialogue.

Mention is made of this episode not to trivialise the multiple complexities of the India-Pakistan interaction or to minimise the enormous difficulties that must be overcome if something approaching a normal relationship is to be established between the two countries. Neither is it intended to portray the Pakistani politician as being more hypocritical than his counterparts in India or anywhere else. It is being mentioned in order to show that even a person who was charged with putting out Pakistan's case as vehemently as he could, and to the audience he had ultimately to convince, was not immune to the allure of what a normal relationship - as exemplified by his opportunity to travel "normally" through India - could mean. If a person seasoned in Pakistan politics could be sensitive to the benefits of a normal relationship with India, then all hope is not lost yet.

This particular gentleman was by no means a radical thinker, nor even a particularly imaginative leader (not even a person who can think outside the loop as the present Foreign Minister, Kurshid Mehmood Kasuri, can). As a member of one of the many variants of the Pakistan Muslim League that have appeared on the scene over the years, he was a simple yet authentic representative of the orientation that has always been at the centre of gravity in Pakistan's political culture. Neither did his views represent an aberration from that culture. It needs to be remembered that the Muslim League in that part of the subcontinent which forms today's Pakistan was made up essentially of the Unionist party that had transformed itself just a few years before Partition. The one-time Unionists might have subsequently subscribed to the world-view propagated by Mohammed Ali Jinnah and, over the past 50 years, learnt to articulate the state ideology manufactured by the establishment (read military). But essentially, the feudal forces that supported the Unionist party switched their allegiance to the League and opted for Partition only because they believed that this was the only means by which they could retain their supremacy.

In a country where land-holding patterns have hardly changed over half a century, the feudal forces that once found expression through the Unionist party now seek their political fortunes through the many variants of the Muslim League and other mainstream formations. (After it shed its populist rhetoric, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) too has essentially become a conglomerate of feudals, albeit those who still adhere to the magic of the Bhutto name.) Like their Unionist party predecessors, the Leaguers and others of the Pakistan political mainstream have no vested stake in taking an anti-India stand. There are other indicators to show that Pakistan's mainstream political class does not take an anti-India stance because its members believe in it.

In the 1990 general elections - when Pakistan had yet to emerge fully from the shadow of Gener<147,2,1>al Zia-ul-Haq and there was great uncertainty as to how much leeway the military would allow the political class - both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif campaigned on shrilly anti-India platforms. They probably did so both because they thought that it was what their voters wanted to hear, and because they wanted to stay on the right side of the establishment.

By the time of the 1997 general elections, anti-India rhetoric was almost completely absent from campaign speeches; in fact, and there were even hints that normalisation would be pursued. Neither in the general elections held last year was there much evidence of politicians resorting to anti-India propaganda to curry favour with the voters. This does not mean that Pakistan's political culture has switched to the other extreme and that politicians in that country are about to woo voters by demonstrating their friendliness towards India. What it does mean is that Pakistan's politicians appear to have realised that they cannot substitute anti-India rhetoric for programmes and plans to deal with the domestic issues that their voters are more interested in.

Moreover, although the argument that the subcontinent can fulfil its desire for prosperity only if there is peace between India and Pakistan does make for a recurring theme in Pakistan's political discourse, their politicians invariably thrust on India the responsibility to take the first step in this direction by settling the "core issue".

The fact that there is a civilian component in the current Pakistani regime does not necessarily mean that the peace initiative that is currently mooted enjoys more sanguine prospects than the ones that were launched in the not-too-distant past. It hardly bears repetition that the civilian component is subordinate to the military in the diarchic scheme. The elected civilian Cabinet of Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali is dependent on such a fragile support base within the Cabinet that it can easily be toppled. Yet, it might not be as weak or prove as ephemeral as it does on first appearance. Given the military's antipathy to Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif - the two politicians who are capable of creating parliamentary coalitions without external support - and given the fact that it cannot afford to let the religious parties take power, its options are not unlimited. But it would still take a great deal of courage and political acumen for the civilians in the regime to defy the military and take an approach on the "core issue" different from the one it takes, even if they were inclined to.

In retrospect, the Lahore initiative might have had the best prospects for success because of the character of the man who led it from the Pakistan side. Nawaz Sharif had succeeded in gaining the upper hand over the presidency and the judiciary and established an iron grip over Parliament. He had successfully got rid of one Army chief and if he had won over a majority in the Corps Commanders Conference and thereby ousted Pervez Musharraf, he could well have established a grip on the military. If all that had come to pass, Nawaz Sharif, with his businessman's instincts and interests (and aided as he was by industrial interests on the Indian side of the border), could well have gone for the breakthrough in the relations with India. However, the very recklessness and ruthlessness with which he almost achieved success proved to be his undoing.

In Agra it was the Pakistan military itself which took on the burden of advancing the initiative. Amidst the disappointment over the deflation of the euphoria that was generated in the first two days of the July 2001summit and the long-drawn and bitter wrangle over the declaration that was drafted or not drafted (according to one's point of view), there were only a few observers (Frontline's Muralidhar Reddy among them) who cared to remember the positives left in the residue. The Pakistan military, the bastion of anti-India attitudes in that country, had begun talking to the Indian leadership and had thereby shattered a taboo that had restrained civilian leaders from doing so. To this might be added the fact that Musharraf (from all appearances, and whatever other faults he might have) does not suffer from the communal bias of an Ayub Khan, the incompetence of a Yahya Khan or the ideological zeal of a Zia-ul-Haq, his predecessors as military strongmen of Pakistan. Musharraf's pragmatic approach towards dealings with India and the impression that he gives of being genuinely interested in a settlement, militate against the proposition that the Pakistan military has a vested stake in being hostile to India.

Retaining for itself a disproportionately large chunk of Pakistan's resources as it does, and enjoying a vast financial network, the military is averse to civilian scrutiny of its affairs and resorts to the excuse of national security to these ends. There is as yet no strong evidence to suggest that the Pakistan Army has realised the need to change this paradigm - that it has recognised that the growing economic gap between Pakistan and India now necessitates a change in the allocation of resources and the kind of control that it has thus far exercised. Some of Pakistan's naval chiefs have spoken on these lines, and the Pakistan Air Force must be well aware of the growing technological gap (itself a product of the economic gap). But the Army has yet to articulate its views clearly.

There exists a possibility that the Pakistan Army can see that with the changes in strategic doctrine that are taking place in the U.S.-dominated world, new opportunities are now available. Any analysis of the dichotomy in the approaches taken towards India by the Pakistan military and its civilian leaders ultimately, however, runs into the stumbling block of the "core issue" - the settlement of the Jammu and Kashmir issue.

India's position on this issue is so well embedded in the consciousness on this side of the border that the point is often missed that the Pakistanis too have as much an ingrained approach. Even though it is difficult to accept the validity of Pakistan's outlook on this issue or in any way condone the methods it uses to advance its objectives, it must at least be recognised that Pakistanis have strong beliefs, their own reading of the historical record, and their own sense of entitlement to the loyalties of Kashmiris. This is a world view that has to be contested, argued about, refuted with facts and logic, and not just rejected out of hand as has too often been the Indian response.

However, the whole approach towards summitry between India and Pakistan has too often resembled the search for a quick fix or of something being done to please the wider international community. Both the Lahore and Agra summits appeared to have been essentially conducted to appease the international community and quell its fears that the subcontinental rivals were about to hurl nuclear weapons against each other. The leadership on either side has yet to give the impression it has recognised that the Kashmir issue cannot be settled in a hurry and that it is, therefore, trying to prepare its people for an arduous process.

India's emphasis on the non-Kashmir aspects of the interaction - people-to-people contacts, more trade and cultural exchanges, the revival of sporting links, and so on - are of course designed to woo the civilian population of Pakistan. To put the benefits of peaceful co-existence before them and hope that they will thereby be sufficiently enticed to bypass the military and improve the relations with India to such an extent that their support for the Kashmir cause (as Pakistan's official ideology would have it) will be eroded. But for such an approach to begin to work, it would be necessary for India to demonstrate that it is interested in a serious discussion on Kashmir.

Given the tendency to swing between over-hyped hope and utter disgust in respect of the relationship with Pakistan, it too often happens that there is a complete blurring of the distinctions between the diverse interlocutors that India has to deal with on the other side. As opposed to this black-and-white approach can be posed the memory of that encounter between the Pakistani politician and the Indian journalists. Amidst all the references to the core issue, in that conversation were the references to the "beer, sheer and all that" which are available in the eateries on the Grand Trunk road. As and when the Indian leadership sits with its Pakistani counterpart, it would do well to remember that along with the beer, the core issue will also be on the table.

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