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Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2008 > June 07, 2008 > Indo-Pak Ties: Difficult Period of Uncertainty Ahead

Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 25

Indo-Pak Ties: Difficult Period of Uncertainty Ahead

Sunday 8 June 2008, by M K Bhadrakumar


To the extent that the diplomacy underlying India-Pakistan composite dialogue is paramountly about managing the relationship in the short term, troubles lie ahead. Beguiling rhythms might stealthily approach the centre-stage and the ritualised patterns of the recent years in evidence in the public arena of Indo-Pak diplomacy could come under siege.

Keeping the tensions under check in the Indo-Pak relationship is a challenging task in the best of times. This is more so in an election year when the relationship remains at a virtual standstill. Three recent developments underscore the nature of the challenges that lie ahead. First, Pakistani domestic politics entered a new phase of criticality as the coalition arrangement involving the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) led by Asif Ali Zardari and the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) led by Nawaz Sharif threatened to unravel.

Second, the settlement between the Pakistani authorities and the Taliban in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan have cast a shadow on Pakistan-US relations, which holds the potential to spur the militant activities in the region and in turn impact on the Indo-Pak equations. Third, with the capture of power by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Karnataka, India’s national politics enters a level of volatility that will increasingly make the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government appear a lame-duck administration in the Pakistani perception.

The window of opportunity that lay open for the past year or so for the UPA Government to elevate India-Pakistan relationship to an altogether new level of trust and mutual understanding may be fast getting closed. If leadership is all about risk-taking and timing, the UPA proved far too timid during the past year in pressing ahead with the business of the composite dialogue.

The Prime Minister could as well have visited Pakistan six months ago. A forward movement on some of the tangible issues of Indo-Pak differences at least should have been possible. A determined effort could have been made to incrementally make Pakistan a stakeholder in partnership with India. Thus, the government should have shown the grit to withstand US pressure on the Iran gas pipeline project. But none of these things happened. The problem has got partly at least to do with certain difficulty to be confident about closing any deal with Pervez Musharraf. At any rate, the Indian establishment procrastinated about Musharraf ‘s urgings to do “out-of-the-box” thinking and take the relationship forward. Ironically, with the democratic process gaining traction in Pakistani politics and the consequent diminution of the authority of Musharraf, New Delhi faces new uncertainties.

Never before perhaps in Pakistan has there been such a prevalent opinion that ties with India must be normalised. Political figures ranging from Sharif and Zardari to Islamist leader Maulana Fazlur Rahman have been in unison in recent months voicing support for the composite dialogue. They concur with the imperatives of the composite dialogue. The bonhomie that surrounded the recent visit of External Minister Pranab Mukherjee to Islamabad cut across party lines in Pakistan.

However, the disadvantage lies three-fold. One, the democratically elected government in Pakistan is far too entangled in the domestic political squabbles for the foreseeable future to stabilise and reflect on a considered perspective on steering the India-Pakistan relationship forward. Two, if the push comes to shove between the PPP and PML-N, there is every likelihood that competitive party politics may act as a brake on the government from pursuing bold policies towards India. In the given situation, the PML-N also feels the compul-sion to studiously dissociate from anything that smacks of the Musharraf era. Successive PPP-led governments have shown reticence in breaking fresh ground with India.

There are already discordant voices at the leadership level harking back to the United Nations resolutions on Kashmir, which we haven’t heard for a while. Third, it is a recurring feature that the Pakistani establishment—“permanent bureaucracy”—sets the agenda for a weak or diffident political leadership. This has happened in the two capitals in the past. The present situation is fraught with added complexities insofar as the loyalty of the Pakistani establishment appears to be divided between Musharraf and Sharif. That is a tailor-made situation for the security agencies to take matters into their hands.

MEANWHILE, an altogether new regional scenario is arising out of the deal concluded last Tuesday between the Pakistani authorities and the Taliban in the tribal areas in the border regions with Afghanistan. Prima facie, Islamabad acted defiantly against the US in negotiating a deal with the Taliban. Indeed, the US has put its reservations on public record.

The implications are serious if the US and Pakistan are working in tandem and an elaborate pantomime is being played out. If so, the climax may well lead to the de facto legitimisation of the Taliban. Indeed, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad lately called for “explicitly defining” the US’ role in Afghanistan. He hinted that the US indulges in doublespeak. From New Delhi’s point of view, the Taliban’s accommodation would work as a force multiplier for the various militant groups, including those operating against India. The increasingly open dealings between the Pakistani security agencies and the Taliban in the recent weeks on the pretext of peace talks are extremely worrisome. Pakistan’s ties with the Taliban always remained a riddle wrapped up in an enigma. The Indian security establishment will be justified to remain on guard. A need for vigilance arises also on account of the turbulent period ahead in Indian domestic politics as the 2009 general election approaches.

The Karnataka State election results may or may not prove to be a turning-point in Indian politics, but most certainly, the UPA will have enough on its plate in the coming months as the BJP mounts a concerted attack on its policies. Pakistan is an alluring subject that fires up public imagination. Significantly, the BJP didn’t play the “Hindutva card” in Karnataka and yet won by harping, among other things, on the issue of terrorism. And terrorism is a political metaphor invoking India-Pakistan relations.

In the circumstances, the natural inclination of the UPA will be to play safe. Its instinct will be to avoid taking major initiatives that are liable to get branded as “appeasement policy” towards Pakistan in the event of any tragic terrorist strikes within India. But standstill is plainly unsustainable over a period of time. It could perpetually come under the threat of erosion or could become hostage to militants or other elements that have stakes in derailing the composite dialogue. A difficult period lies ahead even as the two countries navigate the choppy waters in their domestic politics.

M. K. Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

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