Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
With so much noise around these days in the relationship between India and Pakistan it is hard to make out a clear trend. Politicians and national media in both countries have reverted to trading accusations, whether it be about their nuclear arsenals, Pakistani action against Islamist militants blamed for last year’s Mumbai attacks or alleged violations of a ceasefire on the Line of Control dividing Kashmir. Scan the headlines on a Google news search on India and Pakistan and you get the impression of a relationship fraught beyond repair.
Does that mean that attempts to find a way back into peace talks broken off after the Mumbai attacks are going nowhere? Not necessarily. In the past the background noise of angry rhetoric has usually obscured real progress behind the scenes, and this time around may be no exception.
The Hindu newspaper reported on Sept 1 that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may meet either the president or prime minister of Pakistan on the sidelines of a Commonwealth summit in Trinidad in November. It said the Indian government was already working out what strategy to adopt to make any meeting meaningful, while also pushing Pakistan to take more action against Pakistan-based militant groups in order to prevent another Mumbai-style attack.
There is no confirmation of that Trinidad meeting, and nor is there likely to be for some time, but The Hindu in recent months has proved to be well informed about the prime minister’s approach to Pakistan. Singh himself laid out his plans in a speech in parliament in July in which he promised a “step by step” approach to dialogue – effectively meaning that India would talk to Pakistan while refusing for now to reopen a formal peace process broken off after the Mumbai attacks.
The world’s largest democracy chooses a new government in an election beginning on Thursday, and given the fires burning next door in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the men and women who will rule New Delhi over the next five years will doubtless exert influence over the course of events.
Indeed, with the pain and anger over the Mumbai attacks of November still raw, the mood could hardly be tougher against Pakistan. Even shorn of the campaign rhetoric, the positions of both the ruling Congress and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party on Pakistan begin from common ground. No dialogue with Islamabad until it “dismantles the infrastructure of terrorism”, both parties say in their manifestos.
Time was when every time militants set off a bomb in Pakistan, India’s strategic establishment would turn around and say “we told you so”. This is what happens when you play with fire … jihad is a double-edged sword, they would say, pointing to Pakistan’s support for militants operating in Kashmir and elsewhere.
Not any more. When India’s opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party – which has consistently advocated a tougher policy toward Pakistan – tells the government to be watchful of the fallout of the security and economic situation in Pakistan, then you know the ground is starting to shift.