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A tightrope walk to Delhi

 

By Imtiaz Gul

The Friday Times, May 30, 2014

 

The optics in New Delhi were fantastic. Nawaz Sharif’s maiden meeting with Narendra Modi drew worldwide attention. Cameras, microphones and eyes were fixed on their body language too, particularly when Modi vehemently shook Sharif’s hand ahead of his swearing in ceremony.

But the string of news coming through the media after their 50-minute bilateral meeting took the gloss off the media spectacle and made everybody realize that the real test lies in semantics, ie how does the leadership translate vows of friendship and cooperation in demonstrable actions. They are crucial to building on the widespread goodwill that summit meetings generate.

Very naturally, a big question arising out of the Modi-Sharif meeting is how and whether it will impact the civil-military relations in Pakistan. Symbolism and the usual euphoria accompanying such meetings apart, both leaders face tough days and months ahead – as an avowed pracharak of RSS, Modi must prove to his core vote bank that he would not relent in dealing with Pakistan. And Sharif on his part must convince the Indian leadership that Pakistan in 2014 is a different ballgame, where the civil-military leadership now looks eye-to-eye on relations with India and that they want to move on a for a better and peaceful future for the people of both countries.

But skepticism still abounds as to whether the Pakistani military is really on board as far as relations with India are concerned. This curious concern kept resonating in debates among Indian commentators and in questioning by TV anchors.  In several interactions with Indian TV channels in the past few days, we often confronted these questions, with an implied message that since much of the trouble between the two countries stems from the Kashmir dispute and the way the Pakistani military has spearheaded it since late 1980s, should one assume that the military establishment is happily giving up that mission for good? Indian commentators and anchors also kept pointing to a) the opposition by certain people/groups at home to Sharif’s decision on attending Premier Modi’s swearing in as signs of displeasure of the military establishment, giving to doubts about whether Sharif has the will and the capacity to pull it off on his own, and b) the terrorist attack on the Indian consulate in Herat (May 23).

And Afghan president Hamid Karzai, too, provided them the bait by accusing a Pakistan-based militant group of being behind the assault on the Indian diplomatic mission in Herat.

“The incident is condemned by the Afghan people as it is condemned by the people of India. This was a clear, clear attack by terrorists,” Karzai told media.

Most Indian analysts interpreted the attack as an attempt by anti-India elements in Pakistan to test the resolve of Modi, a hardliner Hindu nationalist but, as a whole, bringing in Lashkar-e-Taiba in his remarks while being on the Indian soil also reinforced Karzai’s propensity to benefit from the India-Pakistan tensions and by playing up what was certain sweet music to most Indian ears.

Lashkar-e-Taiba at work in western Afghanistan? That was quite a statement and only reflected what most Afghan ruling leaders have tended to project.

Implied in Karzai’s statement was also the hint that those (military and militants) unhappy with Modi’s elevation would try to subvert attempts for normalization among India, Afghanistan and Pakistan. By the way, Karzai has for long held (he told us too during a 2008 meeting in Kabul) that the Pakistani military holds the key to the end of activities of non-state actors on eastern and western borders.

What is then the challenge for Nawaz Sharif? Clearly, he must convince both Kabul and New Delhi that 2014 means a different Pakistan, and that things have changed because of Pakistan’s internal political and economic implosive conditions – a daunting challenge indeed. And will this strain his relations with General Sharif? Possibly. But not necessarily because one would hope that a) the military establishment realizes – more than anybody else – that the era of reliance on, or support for, non-state actors even for a legitimate cause (Kashmir) is over and that the world at large abhors such adventurism, and b) Sharif and saner elements around him can dispassionately but eloquently convey to the GHQ that the key to Pakistan’s internal peace, economic revival as well as its troubles on the western border rests with India.

One assumes that even the military now understands the dynamics unfolding associated with the latter; the probable next Afghan president Dr Abdullah Abdullah represents those Afghans who: a) like Karzai consider Pakistan as the key source of instability in their country, b)  enjoy considerable clout in New Delhi, and c) essentially represent much of the largely non-Pashtun Afghan establishment, which has been wary of and  vocally averse to Pakistan’s support for and linkages with forces called Taliban and mujahideen.

This context requires extreme deft handling of a situation which is going to be a very tight-rope walk-the-talk challenge for Sharif both in New Delhi as well as at home. Nudging the Kashmir-focused forces away from confrontation to a more, internationally acceptable, collaborative engagement for the sake of Kashmiris remains the most formidable task for the civilian government. At the same time, it is imperative for all the supporters and sympathizers of the Kashmiri and Indian Muslims to leave the issue to dialogue among Kashmiris and let them make the final pronouncement on their future.

Also, people in Pakistan should realize that the Indian state and institutions are responsible for the plight of all their citizens, regardless of their faith. The Pakistani state and institutions must focus on alleviating the sufferings of the Pakistani citizens as their primary responsibility. As long as they do this, there is no reason why civil-military relations be strained or tensions mar India-Pakistan ties. Concern and care for universal human rights is a noble cause worth standing for but this must not happen at the cost of relations with other nations.

The India-focused national security narrative that has dominated the national discourse thus far needs to be recalibrated in view of the new non-traditional threats that stare us today, ie food and energy security as well as ignorance (read intellectual poverty). Why should the GHQ get upset over attempts to repair relations for the benefit of roughly 450 million Indians (at least 380 million) and Pakistanis (over 50 million) – forced to live below the poverty line? One would assume that the GHQ understands the absolute and the unavoidable reality of a self-reliant economy being the only plausible means of national security.

Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk