Will Singh add Pakistan to his list of triumphs?

March 28, 2011

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has long wanted to secure what his dozen predecessors have failed to achieve: lasting peace with arch rival Pakistan. But, if the WikiLeaks cables are to be believed, Singh probably remains isolated in pursuing his dream.

In a week when officials from both countries meet to resume talks broken off after the 2008 Mumbai attacks and when the two prime ministers play “cricket diplomacy“, have the chances for peace improved?

There seems to be too much loaded against the initiative. The enmity between the two nations is rooted in their very existence and peaceniks are a handful. There is little political gain and much risk to be had from pursuing peace.

Both sides have hardened positions on Kashmir, the Himalayan territory that is claimed in full but ruled in part by both. The two countries have fought two of their three wars over the region. New Delhi accuses Islamabad of aiding separatists and wants this to end. Pakistan denies any help apart from moral and diplomatic support.

And while Singh appears to be the only Indian leader the Pakistanis respect and trust, he has little political clout. His Congress party and the government run on the dictates of powerful party chief Sonia Gandhi. A series of corruption scandals and high prices have eroded his image as a leader above India’s murky politics and put him in the opposition’s firing line.

Singh cannot anyway expect much enthusiasm from the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Hindu nationalist party which eyes Pakistan with deep suspicion. The BJP has in the past played up tensions with Islamabad and would jump on the government at the slightest hint of mischief from across the border.

Nor is the civilian government in Pakistan particularly in a position to push for peace. Indian policy is made in Rawalpindi, the headquarters of the Pakistani army, rather than in Islamabad, critics say, and they have little desire to mend relations with India. There have been past instances where the army has scuppered deals.

In 1999, for instance, euphoria was in the air when the then Indian PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee arrived in Pakistan on a newly-launched bus service. Three months later, the two countries were on the brink of nuclear warfare after Pakistani army-backed militiamen occupied heights in Indian Kashmir.

But Singh has in the past beaten the odds to push India through previously unthinkable paths. In 1991, he opened up the insular socialist economy and set the process of making India a market economy. In 2008, he battled widespread opposition to sign a civil nuclear deal with the U.S., a treaty that elevated ties between New Delhi and Washington to new heights.

The United States too has been nudging the two countries, hoping that peace on Pakistan’s eastern frontier with India will free up troops to assist Washington’s war against Islamist militants along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in the west.

In the end, what will build the constituency for peace in India is a visible sign that Pakistan is acting on its promise not to let its territory be used for anti-Indian activities.

“The instruction given to the Indian side is to go more than half the way, but there are certain lines that can’t be crossed, like terrorism,” said Naresh Chandra, a former Indian ambassador to the United States.

“Unless words are matched by actions, nothing can move forward. In each round, we expect a greater understanding of India’s concerns.”

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