Pakistan, India and America

March 30, 2008

India and Pakistan turn into good friends, and America is kept at arms’ length. Is that possible?

Diplomacy like politics is the art of the possible, and if you listen to the new voices emerging from Pakistan, there is change blowing in the wind as it makes the transition to civilian rule after nearly nine years of military leadership.

Taj Mahal 2006 photo/Jayanta ShawTo stop the extremism and intolerance that is sweeping Pakistan, it must turn away from the Middle East and instead look to its east to rediscover a gentler, yet immensely vibrant heritage that took root in India through the centuries, Pakistan’s The News argued in an extraordinary editorial urging the country’s new leaders to respond to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh call to transform relations into the “best ever”.

“Despite all the attempts to deny this, the reality is that Pakistanis and Indians share a great deal in common — from cuisine to wedding traditions, and of course a great deal more. Rather than tearing ourselves away from this past, which is so much a part of our present, it should be warmly embraced,” it said.

To be sure, there is an element of rebound here and it’s more the fraying relationship with the United States that is driving Pakistan into the unlikely embrace of India, rather than any new-found love for its bitter rival, as the Daily Times said, warning that forging a new relationship with India while dumping America wouldn’t work.

“From the editorials written by the newspapers one comes to the conclusion that whereas the American nexus has become anathema, Pakistan’s good relations with India are a part of the new vision.” it said.

“Somehow, it is presumed that normalising with India will get rid of our problems at home. It is also assumed that getting rid of the American friendship and its implied slavery will benefit us on the basis of our earlier normalisation with India.” But taking on America would only damage Pakistan and give it less leverage in negotiations with India, it added.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh/B. MathurOn the other side of the border there are equally insistent voices calling for faster normalisation of ties. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is hoping to make a visit to Pakistan, a rare event by an Indian leader, at the earliest opportunity. The two sides are trying to put some agreements in place so that it doesn’t look like an image-building exercise, one for a new leader and another facing elections in India that could be as early as this November.

But of course, mirroring the sceptics across the border, there are voices of caution in India too. A day after Singh said he would try to transform relations with Pakistan, his security adviser M.K.Narayanan warned that Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence continued to support militant groups that had carried out attacks in Kashmir and elsewhere in India.

And those with longer memories point out that the installation of a civilian government in Pakistan historically has not been a portent of improved bilateral ties, mostly because of the need for politicians to appear strong on national defence. As an army general President Pervez Musharraf was less vulnerable than civilian politicians on that issue. The Indians are aware of the history.

So is it going to be a real detente? Or are the neighbours condemned to uneasy ties, prisoners of history?

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