Pakistan, India and the possibility of change

July 25, 2011

Pakistan has been defined – sometimes by itself, sometimes by outsiders – as “not India” for so long that it has almost become set in stone. Conventional wisdom would have it that Pakistan can unite its many different ethnic and sectarian groups only by setting itself up in opposition to India and stressing its Muslim identity against Indian secularism and pluralism.  In particular, its powerful army has thrived in part because of that traditional enmity with India.

Yet viewing Pakistan through such a simple prism can be misleading, especially if by freeze-framing it within a historical perspective, it denies the possibility of change.

In many conversations during a trip I just made to Pakistan, I found the subject of India to be remarkable largely for its absence.  The United States is of course popularly perceived as a bigger enemy now, but even talk of relations with America – the big obsession of the western media — was dwarfed by an inwards focus on Pakistan itself.

In a four-hour discussion with his officers in May, Pakistan Army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani made no mention of India, but said that he worried about the weak economy being a threat to Pakistan.  Then in a speech to a conference on deradicalisation in July, he urged “all elements of national power” to work together on a national strategy to counter  terrorism — echoing a line frequently made by the army that Pakistan’s national security depends on better governance and an improved economy. 

Speaking at the same conference alongside Kayani, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani did mention India, but that was to stress the need for better relations. He made the same point in an interview last week, adding that he hoped India could “play a good role” in Afghanistan, where both countries have traditionally been rivals for influence.

None of that is to suggest a sea-change in Pakistan’s view of India — its military in particular remains configured for war with its much bigger neighbour.  And given that Pakistan’s foreign and security policies — including once nurturing militant groups to fight in Afghanistan and Kashmir – have been shrouded in secrecy for decades, few would dare say with certainty exactly what is going on.

But there is a change, at least in relative terms. Pakistan has so many internal problems – the Taliban insurgency,  a weak economy, poor governance, political, ethnic and sectarian violence - that “the Indian threat” has receded, while the fear of internal threats to national security has grown. And amongst people not in positions of authority, the conversation is far more likely to be about power cuts and price rises.

True, the Urdu-language media (or so I’m told) still blames India for many of Pakistan’s problems – the CIA/Mossad/R&AW conspiracy is useful for those who cannot explain the rather bewildering speed at which conditions in the country have deteriorated. Yet some of the passion seemed to have gone out of it.  Nobody asked me – as they did when I first visited Pakistan from India in 2004 - about “rivers of blood” in Kashmir.

The question of Pakistan’s view of India has now become subject of a furious debate being played out across op-ed columns and on Twitter.

In an article this month in the Wall Street Journal, titled “Why My Father Hated India”, Aatish Taseer, estranged son of the late Punjab governor Salman Taseer, wrote about Pakistan’s “unhealthy obsession with India”.   

 Columnist Ejaz Haider quickly objected to its “supposedly linear reality“. He noted that Pakistan’s political parties are in favour of peace with India, and argued that the Pakistan Army – given India’s own military posture - had reasons for matching that in its choice of deployment and threat perception.

In India, former Minister of State and author Shashi Tharoor wrote in defence of Taseer’s piece.  The “Indian threat”, he said, was “a useful device cynically exploited by the Pakistani military to justify their power”.  But he triggered the most anger by turning his sights on what the headline writer on his article called Pakistan’s “delusional liberals” who he said were unwilling to take on the Pakistan army – in his view the cause of all the tensions with India.

In a column in the Daily Times, headlined “We the ‘delusional’ liberals”, Marvi Sirmed wrote that Tharoor ”may also like to know more about the diversity of Pakistani ‘liberals’ before passing judgments … if our liberalism determines the degree to which we should hate our country, it is essentially one certificate that I would not like to get from him. ”

Feisal Naqvi complained in a column in the Express Tribune  that, “Mr Tharoor further believes that Pakistan has no legitimate identity besides a rejection of India and that Pakistani liberals — if truly liberal — would acknowledge this fact. He thereby not only confirms all of the Pakistani establishment’s worst fears about India, but also helps delegitimise Pakistani liberals as would-be traitors, even though they are the very persons calling for peace with India.”

The argument is likely to run and run –Tharoor responded on Twitter.

But the fact that argument is being held at all shows something has changed. It is no less remarkable for being obvious that Pakistanis and Indians are now communicating more than ever before, in real-time, via Twitter, when not that long ago there were no direct flights and it could be difficult even to get a phone call through from Delhi to Islamabad.

Compared to the arguments online, the official peace process between India and Pakistan is rather dull.  Yet these talks seem to be making headway, perhaps by virtue of their dullness.  Unlike previous peace efforts which have triggered domestic backlashes by moving too quickly, the current process has been organised, cautious and incremental.

When the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan meet in New Delhi on Tuesday and foreign ministers on Wednesday there will be no sudden breakthrough.   According to reports in the Indian media (including from ANI and The Hindu)  the focus at this week’s talks will be on small-scale confidence building measures – including improving trade across the Line of Control which divides Kashmir, or making it easier for Indians and Pakistanis to get visas to visit each other.

The foreign ministers’ meeting will be the culmination of a series of talks between top officials covering everything from defence to trade and follow talks between the foreign secretaries – the top diplomats – in Islamabad last month. They are expected to review talks so far, and set a course for future discussions — prosaic stuff unlikely to grab much attention in the 24-hour international news cycle. But there too, there may be signs of change in approach. For all their deliberate dullness, they are worth following, rather than assuming the many failures at peacemaking of the past will be repeated in the present.

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