Manmohan Singh’s Pakistan gamble

July 30, 2009

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has staked his political reputation on talks with Pakistan, earning in equal measure both praise and contempt from a domestic audience still burned by last November’s attack on Mumbai by Pakistan-based militants.

“I sincerely believe it is our obligation to keep the channels of communication open,” he said in a debate in parliament on Wednesday. ”Unless we talk directly to Pakistan we will have to rely on a third party to do so… Unless you want to go to war with Pakistan, there is no way, but to go step-by-step… dialogue and engagement are the best way forward,” Singh said.

That may sound like fairly anodyne stuff. But to recap, Singh signed a joint statement with Pakistan Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani at a meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt this month in which both ordered their foreign secretaries — their top diplomats — to hold more talks to improve relations. Singh however also said the formal peace process — the so-called composite dialogue – could not be resumed until Pakistan took more action against those who organised the Mumbai attack.

The outcome was pretty much what was expected from the talks in Egypt, effectively forming a stepping stone between an ice-breaking meeting between Singh and Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari on the sidelines of a regional summit in Yekaterinburg in Russia in June and the next international forum where senior politicians from both countries will be present — September’s U.N. General Assembly (though Singh is not personally expected to attend.)

But what has outraged the political opposition in India, along with large sections of the media, has been the specific wording of the joint statement.

The first allegedly offending reference is contained in the part of the statement which summarises what each prime minister said during their talks: ”Prime Minister Gilani mentioned that Pakistan has some information on threats in Baluchistan and other areas.”  Outsiders may find this hard to follow but the mention of the “B” word has been portrayed as Indian capitulation to Pakistani accusations that it supports a separatist movement in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan, an allegation India denies.

The second allegedly offending reference is as follows: “Both prime ministers recognise that dialogue is the only way forward. Action on terrorism should not be linked to the Composite Dialogue process and these should not be bracketed.”

Nomatter how many times I read that sentence, I still find it has all the ambiguity of an Escher painting. It can mean either that India will talk to Pakistan without waiting for it to take action on terrorism, or that Pakistan should take action on terrorism without waiting for India to resume the formal peace process.

Thousands of words have been written about the meaning of this sentence, along with the “B” word, in the last two weeks since the joint statement was issued. (And to keep it in perspective, that’s considerably less than the many words which have been written about the exact timing, details, circumstances and implications of the Instrument of Accession signed by the Maharajah of Kashmir pledging his kingdom’s allegiance to India in 1947.)

But to get back to the bigger question of Singh’s approach to Pakistan - his admirers say he has proved himself to be a great statesman; his critics that he naively caved in to Pakistan.

The Hindu newspaper said he had accomplished the impossible with his speech in parliament by silencing his critics while leaving himself the flexibility for a step-by-step approach to relations with Pakistan. “Essentially, what the Prime Minister’s remarks have done is create room for the government to be flexible in its approach to Pakistan, giving it room to calibrate the pace of engagement to the degree to which Islamabad moves ahead on its commitments to act against terror,” it said.

“In the fullness of time, Dr. Singh’s response to the debate will be seen as a potential game changer in India’s official discourse on Pakistan, especially his emphasis on the inevitability of engagement, his clarity on the fact that the alternative to dialogue was war, his fear that the absence of peace with Pakistan would hold back South Asia and allow foreign powers to get involved in the region, and his recognition of the need to strengthen Pakistan’s civilian leaders. On all these points, the Prime Minister is far ahead of his advisers and, perhaps, of the “national mood” that retired diplomats and generals still fighting the battles of the past.”

Indian blog, The Acorn, summed up however how far many thought Singh had taken too big a risk with his speech in parliament in the face of intense pressure to either back down or distance himself from the joint statement.

“So he stood his ground, and didn’t make use of the lifelines that were created for him by the foreign ministry,” it wrote.

“Whether he intended it or not, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has made himself personally vulnerable. Whether he intended it or not, his Sharm-el-Sheikh lollipop is a gamble: if there is another Pakistan-originated terrorist attack during his tenure, Dr Singh will be thrown to the dogs by his own party; if there isn’t one, as the phrase goes, Singh is King.”

For a man in his late 70s, who had a coronary bypass this year and who is expected to hand over power eventually to a younger generation of Congress party politicians clustered around Rahul Gandhi, the fear of being forced to resign may weigh considerably less than the possibility — however remote it might seem – of a peace deal with Pakistan.

And he is not alone in taking a risk on Pakistan. When the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was in power, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajapayee made repeated attempts to make peace with Pakistan and won respect for doing so.

Where he is perhaps alone is in running so quickly against the tide of popular opinion.  His gamble appears to be that Pakistan is on the cusp of change and by failing to seize the moment, India might lose it altogether.

Right now, he has international support running in his favour. An improvement in relations between India and Pakistan could help underpin stability in Afghanistan at a time when backing for the U.S.-led war is flagging on the home front as the United States and Britain face their worst monthly losses since the Afghan war began. The United States, wary of being seen to interfere overtly in relations between India and Pakistan, is expected to continue quietly to bolster peace efforts.

So the timing, as astrologers might say, is auspicious.

Veteran Indian journalist M.J. Akbar quotes what he says is an old Sufi saying: “When you are trapped in a vicious circle, draw a larger one around it.”

Can Singh and his Pakistani interlocutors complete the circle and succeed where so many others before have failed?

(Photos: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh; on the Line of Control in Drass; the Taj in Mumbai and Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee meets his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif in Lahore)

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