By Imtiaz Gul
Friday Times, July 01, 2016
In a rare interview with Times Now, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said it was hard to decide who to speak to about peace in Islamabad.
“We want to live in harmony and peace,” he said, but asserted that it was hard to figure out who in Pakistan he should negotiate with – the elected government, or some other actors. Without naming it, he took a swipe at the Pakistani military: those entrusted with negotiating must go about their business, and those tasked with defending the borders must fulfil the responsibility entrusted to them, he said, assuming the tone and tenor that most US officials had adopted after the March 2008 elections in Pakistan.
Modi implied that India had done its part in convincing the world and internationally isolating Pakistan for its alleged support of terrorism, and the ball was now in Pakistan’s court.
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This probably is the dilemma that most Indian leaders and US officials have faced. Despite knowing Pakistan’s peculiar civil-military context, they keep wondering whether they should or shouldn’t talk to the military, even when they had the most pliant General Pervez Musharraf in charge in Islamabad.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh simply went into a “wait and see” mode when the General, infatuated with a sense of absolute power, threw the gauntlet of selected zonal “demilitarization” in Kashmir in 2006.
During a conference at Stockholm in early 2008, Stephen Cohen, the renowned American expert on South Asia, had expressed his confusion over the “Indian dithering” in initiating a dialogue on Musharraf’s plan.
Ironically, most Indian analysts at the time would describe General Musharraf as a “single window clearance” on all bilateral issues, but soon after his resignation, both the Indian officials and intelligentsia began questioning the “authority” of the civilian government.
Eight years down the lane, another Indian premier is asking the same question, as if he is totally oblivious to Pakistan’s ground realities, and expecting at the same time that Islamabad will bend and eventually beg for talks.
Unfortunately, geopolitics cannot be premised on political constants – in this case India’s reticence on “talks and terror cannot go hand in hand.” Geopolitics is a dynamic process that is recalibrated as and when required.
Only a day before Modi’s interview, Sartaj Aziz, the advisor on foreign affairs, made it clear that Pakistan’s civil-military leadership was in complete unison on the issues of Afghanistan and India. We are eager to resume dialogue with New Delhi but will not do so on their terms, Aziz underscored. At a recent briefing, the advisor brushed aside “cynical criticism” of the country’s foreign policy, giving an all’s-well, feel-good impression. He also dismissed the widely-held perceptions of “Pakistan’s isolation and encirclement,” and cited Islamabad’s SCO membership and the rejection of India being denied entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group as examples of hard diplomatic work.
Anatol Lieven, a British Professor, agrees. “Pakistan’s real isolation will begin if China moved away from it,” he said at an Islamabad seminar. He too points to the growing Russian interest in Pakistan and says if ties with Beijing and Moscow continue growing, there will be little outsiders such as India could do to ostracize Islamabad.
Both the developments – the SCO membership and the support for Pakistan’s viewpoint at the recent NSG meeting at Seoul – will help restore Pakistan’s global image.
While geopolitical ambitions and brinkmanship may be a personality trait of Premier Modi, he and colleagues, as well as their counterparts in Pakistan, also need to pay attention to some of the pressing problems that tens of millions in both countries face.
It is time for India and Pakistan to review their approaches to each other, particularly in deference to the enormity of their socio-economic challenges. Despite the meteoric growth rate of about 9%, poverty in India is still pervasive, especially in rural areas where 70% of India’s 1.2 billion population live. Some 50% of Indians don’t have proper shelter and nearly 70% lack access to decent toilets. A survey reproduced by The Frontlinemagazine says only 42 percent of population in rural India had access to water in toilets.
It certainly doesn’t fit the image of the “shining India.” In a special article, The Frontline (June 24) questions Premier Modi’s economic development promises and argues that “as the Modi government’s hard-nosed neo-liberal policies lead the country to a dead end of economic stagnation and more hardships for people, there is real danger an exponential rise in state-promoted intolerance and fascist tendencies.” The magazine warns of dangers of the country falling to the communal fascists. Another article quotes a young man as saying, “If you happen to be a beef-eating individual, you run the risk of being lynched.”
The magazine also talks of negative grown in India’s exports for 17 consecutive months and of so many other promises Modi had made when elected to power two years ago.
Socio-economic conditions in rural Pakistan or in congested urban centres such as Karachi, Faisalabad, Sialkot, or Peshawar are no different. One third of Pakistanis live below the poverty line. In Pakistan, this figure hovers at 60 million, while estimates for the same in India range between 240 million and 600 million, according to poverties.org.
Pakistan’s very fast growing population faces similar problems, such as lack of education, jobs, technology, capital and investment in a situation defined by years of conflict on its western borders and a state of acrimony with India.
These circumstances beg a fundamental question – for how long can the two countries remain caught up in the current tug of war? For how long can India stall talks and predicate the resumption of dialogue on terrorism alone? Such posturing doesn’t help poor Indian and Pakistani citizens to break out of the vicious cycle of poverty.
Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies