Window closing on Prime Minister Singh’s planned visit to Pakistan

November 29, 2012

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Thomson Reuters)

It is eerily quiet on the fenced border between India and Pakistan in the southern plains of Jammu and Kashmir. Farmers are planting paddy, you can hear the sound of traffic in the distance from both sides of the border, and sometimes the squeals of children. Overhead in high watchtowers that can be seen from a mile, soldiers peer through binoculars at the enemy across while in the rear just behind the electrified fence with its array of Israeli-supplied sensors, soldiers are strung out in a line of bunkers. It’s a cold peace on one of the world’s most militarised frontiers.

Now the young chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, wants to change that, by cracking open the border and allowing the movement of people and trade through a road and rail route that have been shut since Partition in 1947.

It can be transformative and he is not alone in trying to bring about such a change. Further down the border, the governments of the two Punjabs on either side of the border are moving even faster, building up infrastructure to handle greater trade through the Wagah checkpoint that has begun to flow since the two countries agreed to promote trade while trying to tackle long-running political disputes.

Even further away, far to the east the chief minister of Bihar state, Nitish Kumar travelled to Pakistan this month to build ties and was given by all accounts a warm welcome with his Pakistani hosts pulling out all the stops.

President Asif Ali Zardari hosted a Diwali dinner for his unlikely visitor. Nitish has a huge base among Muslim supporters at home, many of whom with families in Pakistan and whom they have struggled to meet because of the restrictions on travel. That’s the one thing the tens of thousands of Muslims want and if he can push for that, he is assured of not only their support but Muslims across the country.

But if peace with politics makes good politics for Nitish and economic sense for the leaders of border states, it becomes far more complicated for Prime minister Manmohan Singh who has harboured an even bigger dream of a grand reconciliation with the neighbour, pursuing back channel talks with then President Pervez Musharraf over Kashmir, which is at the heart of all the animosity.

Singh was himself expected to travel to Pakistan at some point this year to seal the steady process of normalisation since the 2008 Mumbai attacks but that hasn’t happened and there are no signs yet he will make it before Pakistan goes into election mode which has to be held by May.

For him to travel to Pakistan to reciprocate semi-official visits by former premier Yusuf Raza Gilani and President Asif Ali Zardari over the past year there must be “some deliverables”, he has said, meaning more than smiles and handshakes there should be some results.

The one result that Singh – and even more than him the influential middle class, the powerful bureaucracy and a vocal media –  want is action against the Pakistani militants and their patrons who plotted the attacks on India’s financial heart. It’s become even more so in the wake of the execution of the lone survivor of the attacks, Mohammad Ajmal Kasab, after four years in prison.

Indeed far from reaching closure, the hanging of Kasab four days before the anniversary of the attacks has only dredged up all the pain again, the memories of families destroyed and a city held to ransom for three days in what Indians believe was an act of war.

It’s hard to see Singh, who is the subject of withering criticism at home for failing to deliver a clean and strong administration, arriving in Islamabad anytime soon or visiting his hometown Gah in Punjab  shaking hands while Hafeez Sayeed, the head of the Lashkar-e-Taiba whom it has charged for masterminding the attacks holds court in Lahore, not far away.

Or the report about Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, the operational commander of the Mumbai attacks fathering a child while awaiting a trial in a Pakistani prison as part of conjugal rights extended to inmates can only strengthen suspicion that Pakistan is not serious about prosecuting the attackers.

Singh might be in power for eight years, but he simply doesn’t have the political capital to bulldoze through a peace gambit like Atal Behari Vajpayee did with his bus diplomacy back in 1999 and even that backfired with the near-war in Kargil northern Kashmir a few months later.

But if Singh doesn’t go, and instead waits for Pakistan’s civilian leadership to try and take on the military and its militant proxies, he may have to wait a while. If the Americans with all their threats, and sometimes actions such as cross-border strikes from Afghanistan, have been unable to get the military to go after militant groups such as the Haqqanis or the LeT, its hard to see how civilians in an increasingly Islamist state with an independent military and intelligence service can take them head-on.

And by not going and celebrating the modest steps the two countries have taken to normalise ties after the attacks, he only weakens the hands of those in Pakistan who are trying to, in their own small way, fight the forces of obscurantism such as 14-year girl Malala shot for attending school or a fearless press that has stood up to the military, the militants and the mullahs at great cost to itself.

Indeed the whole engagement with Pakistan after the Mumbai attacks is based on the construct that India need to build ties with the people of Pakistan in the hope that it would change the narrative of hatred and fear that the military-religious establishment has sought to indoctrinate generations of Pakistanis with. To that extent, New Delhi has been pushing for easing restrictions on trade and travel and opening up the border regions. By offering trade concessions and lifting visa restrictions the government is trying to reach out to the very large number of ordinary Pakistanis who have a stake in normal relations and can build pressure on the security establishment.

Some of it is clearly working. The movement on trade, however modest, couldn’t  have been possible without the Pakistani army on board. Whatever its compulsions or perhaps it sees advantages for itself given its own business interests, the establishment is allowing the movement of trucks including from Afghanistan – which is a particularly sore point given India’s involvement there – carrying produce.

Left to the state leaders on either side of the border, they could build a network of energy pipelines, deepen people-to-people contact including allowing the survivors of Partition to travel to their native places and boost religious tourism given the large number of Sikh and Muslim shrines on either side of the border. “It can all be a gamechanger”, says Sukhbir Singh Badal. the young deputy chief minister of India’s Punjab state.

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