Testing times: It’s time Pakistan walks the talk

pakistan-firing1The India-Pakistan ties have come to resemble an entrenched manic depression – albeit there are more episodes of lows than highs in this fraught relationship. There is also an intriguingly perverse synchronicity – every time the governments of India and Pakistan talk the language of peace and engagement, the enemies of peace – no prizes for guessing their identity – are quick to spring into action to sabotage any well-meaning initiative.

The August 6 killing of Indian soldiers at the Line of Control (LoC), allegedly by Pakistani troops and terrorists, came at a time when the plans for the first meeting between the prime ministers of India and Pakistan since the Pakistan elections were being firmed up, and both sides were showing signs of accommodation and flexibility to revive the stalled peace process. It may be a coincidence, but the fact that the killing of Indian soldiers occurred barely days after the attack on the Indian consulate in Jalalabad in Afghanistan also needs to be factored to explain what’s really going on behind the veil.

Highs and Lows

mumbai-terrorObservers of India-Pakistan relations will see in the latest killings a depressingly familiar pattern. On November 26, 2008, the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan were at their eloquent best, talking about scaling bilateral relations to new heights, with Pakistan’s Shah Mehmood Qureshi stressing on the irreversibility of the peace process. The rarefied air in the stately Hyderabad House in the heart of Lutyen’s Delhi, where the two foreign ministers were looking to recharge the India-Pakistan relations, was bristling with optimism. Barely hours later, Pakistani terrorists unleashed an orgy of killings in Mumbai, plunging the India-Pakistan relations into a deep depression from which it is still reeling. Again, in July 2010 when the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan met in Islamabad, the talks were moving ahead on a positive trajectory till a mysterious call by Pakistan’s Army Chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani on Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani on the afternoon of July 15. By the evening, the tenor had radically changed, with Pakistan’s Shah Mehmood Qureshi turning a demagogue with a  vengeance and accusing India of human rights violations in Kashmir.

Not Business-as-Usual

Fast-track to 2013, and the pattern was again repeated. In the dying days of 2012, there was renewed optimism that trade diplomacy will triumph over parochial posturing, with Islamabad signalling a decision to grant India the long-overdue Most Favoured Nation status. On January 8, an Indian soldier was brutally mutilated on the LoC, plunging the recovering bilateral ties into another trough of fresh depression. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, an ardent proponent of sustained engagement with Pakistan, shed his usual politeness and had reminded Islamabad sharply that it can’t be “business as usual” anymore in India-Pakistan relations.

The electoral victory of Nawaz Sharif in June had rekindled fresh hopes for a thaw, but the latest killing of Indian soldiers just goes to show how the India-Pakistan relations remain precariously poised in both good times and bad. The killings, allegedly masterminded by Pakistan’s powerful military which traditionally decides and sets limit on the country’s India policy, has brought out the sharp disconnect between the security establishment and the civilian leadership in Pakistan over the course of engagement with India. Or, could it be that one is jumping the gun, and playing into the hands of jihadi forces, which thrive on tensions between the two prickly and estranged sub-continental neighbours.

Games Politicians Play

The guessing game on the identity and motives can go on endlessly, but one has to go beyond the usual finger-pointing and denial to figure out the tone and content of the dialogue process between the two countries. Pakistan, on its part, has vehemently denied any part in the ambush, but India has lodged an official protest with Islamabad.

pakistan-bjpThe Manmohan Singh government has, however, displayed remarkable restraint, but the pugnacities of Indian politics can force him to take a more aggressive posture, endangering the ongoing plan to revive the peace process in a limited manner. India’s chief opposition party, the BJP, has been at its belligerent worst in the parliament, asking the government to declare whether it’s on the side of India or Pakistan. Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav has taunted India’s defence minister as “bechara” (helpless).  It will be a challenge for Manmohan Singh, who has invested so much political capital in seeking reconciliation with Pakistan and has indicated that he is even ready to go to Pakistan if the latter addresses India’s terror concerns, to ride out the din of domestic politics. His posture and room for manoeuvre will, however, be limited by the compulsions of electoral politics – with elections barely a year away, can the UPA be seen as soft on Pakistan? Even before the LoC killings happened, there was talk of dissonance over the terms of reviving the peace process. India is understood to have conveyed that it wants the Nawaz Sharif government to show concrete action on 26/11 justice and grant New Delhi the MFN status to set the stage for the revival of the full-spectrum dialogue. Islamabad has insisted on talks without preconditions, but has signalled that the new civilian regime is serious about turning around relations with India.

Walk the Talk

pakistan-maldivesIn the aftermath of the LoC killings, the positions are bound to harden, but it will be in the interest of both countries not to capitulate to the designs of saboteurs, and persist with dialogue and diplomacy rather than waging a sterile war of words. Manmohan Singh may like to end the speculation game by saying that instead of calling off his planned meeting with Nawaz Sharif in New York, he will convey to him in person that while he would like the dialogue to be revived and continue despite provocations, nothing enduring and meaningful can emerge out of this accident-prone engagement unless Islamabad walks the talk on reining in India-directed terror.

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