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India-Pakistan: Not yet a new chapter

India-Pakistan: Not yet a new chapter
By M K Dhar

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is well advised not to travel to Pakistan at this juncture because the civilian government in Islamabad and the military have yet to make up their mind about genuinely burying the hatchet with India. Though he is keen on resetting bilateral relations, he has not received an appropriate response from Pakistan to justify his optimism to be able to carry his people with him on beginning a new chapter. The source of the conflict between the two neighbours is Pakistan’s territorial claims on India and the use of
jihadi
terrorism to back them and not any Indian claims, territorial or otherwise on that country.

Before Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari sent his latest invitation to Singh to visit Pakistan to coincide with the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, which falls on 28 November, Islamabad withheld implementation of its decision to reciprocate India’s old demand and grant Most Favoured Nation Treatment to New Delhi in relation to trade and commerce and a liberalised vias regime, which were regarded as confidence building measures. It has reported no progress in bringing perpetrators of the Mumbai terror attack based in Pakistan to book and stuck to its old stand on Siachin and Sir Creek issues, making it difficult to clinch an agreement. The civilian leadership of Pakistan is said to be generally favouring a more engagement-based policy but, the army has been quick to the wield the axe.

Taking a long-term view of relations, New Delhi has continued to engage Pakistan in serious dialogue to sort out differences and build trust, but has not much to show by way of progress towards normalisation. The date suggested by Zardari is evidently aimed at projecting a soft image of Pakistan, as opposed to a country where minorities are ill-treated. Apart from the visit being well-received by the people of Pakistan, it would also reinforce 'our mutual desire' to promote inter-faith and inter-religious harmony. He recently cited Sino-Indian relations as model worthy of emulation by India and Pakistan, where trade and people-to-people contacts could be encouraged to develop further, leaving the more vexed issues of boundaries and the like for solution at some time in future.

Such sentiments are, no doubt, laudable, but doubts have arisen about the continuity of the present government in Islamabad, which is on shaky legs. In view of the unending standoff between the government and a vindictive Supreme Court, which sacked Yusuf Raza Gilani, then prime minister, for contempt on his refusal to comply with its order to write to the Swiss authorities to probe corruption charges against Zardari, there is no certainty whether Raja Pervez Asharaf will survive. To get over the situation, the government is thinking of cutting short its own term – which lasts till March 2013 – and hold fresh elections in November and let the new parliament and government handle the situation. The political situation is extremely volatile and it is difficult to predict what happens next. It is thus impolitic to invite the Indian prime minister at a time of transition when the host is unsure of being in his post to receive an honoured guest.

Reviving cricketing ties between the two countries is a good move, which will divert the attention of the people in both countries from the bitterness and suspicion that have seized them and help build an atmosphere congenial for purposeful dialogue. New Delhi has to overcome considerable internal opposition to inviting the Pakistani team in view of the persisting bitterness about Islamabad refusing to cooperate as regards Mumbai and other terror attacks. The Pakistani military, which has the final say in matters relating to India and other neighbours, may regard the present overtures to India as tactical, a temporary consequence of Pakistan’s present weakness on internal, external and economic fronts. The civilian leadership may take a less sanguine view of the domestic costs of hostility to India, but the end policy remains the same as far as India is concerned.

Another factor to take into account is Russia’s move to woo Pakistan at a time when the latter’s relations with the US are strained, and seek its neutralisation in cohort with China. But, while Pakistan will exploit the opportunity to the full to get whatever assistance it can from Moscow, it has begun a serious patch-up bid with America. It has signed an agreement of allowing movement of supplies for NATO and the US forces in Afghanistan via the land over-route and Washington is expected to reciprocate by releasing economic aid withheld by it as punishment for Pakistan’s abetment of terrorism in Afghanistan and its sponsorship of the Haqqani Taliban network and using Lashkar and other outfits to whip up anti-US and anti-India hysteria, whenever required. A likely strategic partnership between Russia and Pakistan, infrastructure development, participation by Russian companies in the setting up of an oil and gas pipeline, as well as, a power plant, with some limited cooperation in the field of defence – the main highlights of President Vladimir Putin’s visit – has sent alarm bells ringing in western capitals.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has adopted a step-by-step approach to tackle differences with Pakistan and, it is possible that when External Affairs Minister S M Krishna visits Lahore and Islamabad for three days from 7 September, some of these issue may be sorted out. New Delhi realises that Pakistan is currently passing through a difficult phase and it will not be appropriate to press matters beyond a point. He seeks to isolate bilateral ties from a possible fallout of acts of terrorism and take them to the next of development when they could have normal people-to-people contacts, increased means of communication and a natural development of trade and economic relations. Pakistan’s new High Commissioner Salman Bashir also says he would like to focus on opportunities, building friendship and developing common space. The two countries could learn from each other, tackle problems and challenges and improve the lives of their people. According to reports, the two countries are working together to resolve the 'doable' Siachin and Sir Creek issues to improve the atmospherics for comprehensive engagement. With a modified formula being worked out in respect of the ground situation in Siachin and the fact that the two sides are very close to finding a solution on the Sir Creek, observers believe that, given a certain amount of goodwill, it should be possible to resolve the disputes.

Although terrorism dominated the recent foreign secretary-level talks between the two countries, the Indian side tried to save them from any fallout resulting from hysteria created by the media on the revelations made by terrorist Abu Jundal. It held the dialogue was a big success as it proved that the Indian government was keen on continuing it, so that the peace process was not derailed.

Several of Pakistan’s leaders have publicly stated that is a strategic shift in Pakistan’s position of seeking closer relations with India and other neighbours and that the army too is on board. This should be adequately responded to. India, China, Russia and Iran can offer many opportunities to Pakistan for trade and development of they join together to form a new economic grouping, as they constitute the most rapidly growing economies in the world. It may be recalled that sometime back, Manmohan Singh had mooted the idea of forming an exclusive economic bloc with Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. The Chinese president is reported to have put forward the idea of a China-India-Pakistan economic bloc in South Asia. Russia, on the other hand, is for India, Pakistan and Iran becoming full members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, but none of these ideas have come to fruition as yet.

Western observers, however, feel that the perceived shift in Pakistan’s official attitude may be purely opportunistic as it currently faces an acute economic crisis and threat from terrorist outfits which are able to strike at will. They see no change of heart on Pakistan’s part, but due to its strained ties with the US, it is looking for newer friends in the neighbourhood. While these relations have seen some improvement lately, Washington continues to harbor suspicion about Islamabad’s unwillingness to act against the Haqqani network.

In any case, New Delhi has made it clear it has no intention of trying to profit from the strained relations between Islamabad and Washington. The next few weeks will show whether the change in Pakistan is real and seeking friendly relations with India genuine. India’s stand on improving ties and continuing the dialogue process remains unchanged, what is uncertain is Pakistan’s response.

M K Dhar is the former Chief of Bureau, Hindustan Times.
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