In India and Pakistan talks, an intimately tangled web

April 17, 2012

Listening to Narendra Modi campaign for re-election in Gujarat in 2002 after some of the worst communal bloodletting in India’s history, one word was repeated so often that even I, with little knowledge of the language, could follow the meaning. “Pakistan”, he said, was the real threat to India. No matter that his opponents accused him of orchestrating violence in which some 2,000 people, most of them Muslims, died in retaliation for the burning of Hindu pilgrims in a train returning from a flashpoint town in northern India. “Pakistan”, he said, was responsible for terrorism in India. “Pakistan”, Modi repeated five times like an incantation, his fist clenched, his neck garlanded with marigolds. The cheering crowds were to be left in no doubt that only he, with his brand of Hindu right-wing populism, could stand between them and the external threat. The guilt-by-association at the death of so many Muslims earlier in the year in Gujarat, a state which borders Pakistan, was to be rechannelled into victimhood and vulnerability. From there came a process of expiation and, for Modi, electoral victory.

A full decade on, cleared by Indian courts of involvement in the Gujarat bloodshed, his image rehabilitated at least for some as a leader who can deliver good governance in India, Modi faces a new state election in Gujarat at the end of this year in which Pakistan will again play a role. It will be far less than before – India has moved on from the tensions of 2001 and 2002 when it came close to war with Pakistan over a December attack on its parliament. But the fact that Pakistan will play any role at all in the Gujarat campaign is testament to the peculiar intimacy of India-Pakistan relations, and with it, the tangled web of domestic politics that will define how far and how fast the two countries can go in improving ties.

As Chief Minister of Gujarat and a rising star in the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Modi is uniquely well placed to choose whether to exploit for political gain the efforts by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of the ruling Congress party to improve relations with Pakistan. In particular, he will have a say on whether Singh can reach a settlement on the disputed Sir Creek region which lies between Gujarat and Sind in Pakistan. If Singh and Congress were to give away too much, Modi and the BJP will accuse them of  going soft on terrorism at a time when the man India believes masterminded the 2008 Mumbai attacks, Lashkar-e-Taiba founder Hafez Saeed, continues to take a high profile in Pakistan. Were Singh – who has said he wants to visit Pakistan – to give away too little, he might find it difficult to win Pakistani support for further peace moves or even to carry off a successful trip to the country of his birth.

Rewind for a moment to the current state of India-Pakistan relations. A rather well organised peace process has allowed both countries to set aside for now their priority issues – for Pakistan, disputed Kashmir and for India, “cross-border terrorism” by Pakistan-based militants – and instead focus on improving trade. The idea is that the more India and Pakistan become economically interdependent, the more both have to gain from peace than from war. Over time, that is meant to create the space to tackle the more difficult problems that have divided India and Pakistan since Partition in 1947.

Where it has become complicated, is over the timing and nature of a visit by Singh to Pakistan. He was already invited by Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, who travelled to the Indian town of Mohali last year to watch his team being defeated by India at cricket. He was invited again by Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari this month, who turned a trip to an Indian shrine into a state visit. Refusing an invitation from both prime minister and president offering to return the hospitality would be just plain rude.

The difficulty, however, is in arranging a prime minsterial visit to Pakistan which would achieve something without Singh and the Congress party facing criticism at home.  While it was enough for his predecessor, BJP leader Atal Behari Vajpayee, to simply go to Lahore in 1999 to demonstrate his recognition of the existence of Pakistan and make an opening bid for peace, Singh needs to find a new way to give substance to his visit.

Yet the chances of a peace deal on Kashmir look slim. While Singh and then Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf came close to agreeing a roadmap for peace in Kashmir in 2007 - essentially accepting the division of the region between India and Pakistan while trying to make borders irrelevant – the current civilian government in Pakistan has no authority to deliver on a deal which even Musharraf admitted had yet to be worked out in detail. The Pakistan Army continues to dominate foreign policy, and Hafez Saeed continues to insist that as soon as the Afghan war is settled, the mujahideen will turn their attention back to “a full-scale armed jihad” in Kashmir. The Pakistan government led by Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), meanwhile, deny any knowledge of the agreement worked out by Singh and Musharraf. Nor would it be easy for the PPP, as a party which claims to represent the democratic aspirations of the diverse peoples of Pakistan, to accept a deal effectively imposed on Kashmir from above, by central authorities in New Delhi and Islamabad.

One half-way house which has been floated would be for Singh to mark his visit to Pakistan by ending the Siachen war. It is an idea which has gained currency in the Pakistani media after 138 soldiers and civilian staff were buried by an avalanche/landslide in the Pakistani side of the Siachen region this month. But the idea is finding few takers in India, which after starting the war in 1984 occupies higher positions and sees no reason to pull out unless Pakistan first acknowledges its advantage by agreeing to record the existing frontline on a map.

Absent an agreement on Siachen, another possibility would be to announce a settlement of the dispute over Sir Creek. Any agreement over the marshlands between Gujarat and Sind, so the argument goes, would not be as sexy as ending the war on the world’s highest battlefield, but it was considered – at least until recently – “doable”.

And this is where Modi comes in. The dispute over Sir Creek, secondary to Siachen and tertiary to Kashmir, has recently acquired new relevance as a potential source of energy, including shale gas, the new holy grail in hungry world energy markets (and few countries are hungrier for energy than Pakistan and India.) Whether it really is a prime source of energy is less important than its potential, politically, as an issue waiting to be exploited. It would be an obvious target for someone like Modi who presents himself as the man who can deliver economic growth to India and who could crush the Congress party were it to give away a valuable source of energy. This week, he talked about the need to exploit hydrocarbons in the Sir Creek area.

So if you were the Congress party, you might think the best bet would be to play down expectations from Singh’s visit – accept the hospitality by all means, but keep it low key, avoid any big-ticket agreements that would leave you vulnerable to attack by the BJP, focus on opening up trade both between India and Pakistan and across Pakistan between Afghanistan and India.

But now consider it from Pakistan’s point of view. The peace process with India is not just about resolving disputes between Islamabad and Delhi. Arguably the bigger struggle for power in South Asia is not between India and Pakistan, but between civilian politicians and the army within Pakistan itself. The PPP government has everything to gain from peace talks since it diminishes the power of a military which has dominated both the economic resources and the popular imagination of Pakistan for decades through its opposition to perceived Indian hegemony in South Asia.

The much-disliked presence of US troops in Afghanistan has provided a temporary respite to this India-focused narrative, one that both the main civilian political parties – the PPP and opposition Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N) of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif – appear determined to exploit.

But they have, perhaps, a couple of years left to achieve that before the army, which will remain focused on Afghanistan until most foreign combat troops withdraw in 2014, turns its attention back to India. And even if the army itself were to accept improved relations with India, the militants it once nurtured to fight in Kashmir would have little reason to do so – they would risk irrelevance  without any front to fight on.  Or as Hafez Saeed, who once had very close ties to the army, said in an interview with India Today, as soon as foreign troops were out of Afghanistan, the mujahideen could turn their attention back to Kashmir.

At the narrowest level, the ruling PPP would like a peace deal with India before elections due by March next year. But even stripping out party politics, both main political parties, the PPP and PML-N, would gain, in their perennial battle for power with the military, from a peace deal with India before 2014.

The questions we need to look at over the next few years, therefore, are not about the absolute nature of the India-Pakistan peace process but how it plays out in relative terms in each country. Pakistan’s fragile civilian democracy would benefit from moving quickly. India’s Congress party could suffer if moving too quickly unleashed a populist backlash which became a distraction from economic and political reform.

On a practical level, Sir Creek, rather than Kashmir or Siachen, may turn out to be the place where those competing interests between India and Pakistan  intersect. If that is the case, it is time we all learned much more about it. In particular, we ought to be giving the same attention to the technical and economic issues behind the exploitation of energy sources there as has traditionally been given to Kashmir.

(Photos: Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari and his son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari; Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi; Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee greets his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif in 1999)

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