The killing of five soldiers at the Line of Control (LoC) by the Pakistan army on August 6 has once again raised questions about dialogue with Pakistan. Incidents like these disturb the diplomatic engagement between the two countries.
But should they interrupt the dialogue process? Should the interruption of dialogue become our permanent response until Pakistan conforms to our expectations? We must eschew this all-or-nothing approach because the ground reality is far more complex.
We know that terror groups and their mentors in the State structures in Pakistan have blocked attempts by civilian governments to improve ties with India. So long as such threats continue, containing and countering them must remain an important part of our policy. What is less well known is the emergence of a growing segment of people in Pakistan who, realising the deleterious consequences of confrontation with India, wish to engage with us constructively. They recognise that the use of terror against others has boomeranged on Pakistan. The vibrant media there has made the debate more introspective and has been questioning all State institutions, including the hitherto unchallenged army.
Those imbued with this fresh thinking may not agree with us on all issues, but they do understand that a peaceful relationship with India is important for Pakistan’s stability and progress. This is a good base to work towards a more normal relationship. In 2011-12, Pakistan reversed the counterproductive policy of restricting trade with India until the resolution of political issues, and substantially liberalised its trade regulations. Growing trade strengthens constituencies with economic stakes in a peaceful relationship.
India was not a factor during the Pakistan election in May. Instead, the focus was on their own problems: energy shortages, a failing economy, terrorism and governance.
For now, the forward-looking segment may not have much say in Pakistan’s key affairs, but they must gain strength for Pakistan to become a normal State at peace with itself and its neighbours. Therefore, we need a two-track policy towards Pakistan — counter and contain the dangerous and engage with the constructive. The absence of dialogue shuts the second track and weakens the pro-peace constituency in Pakistan. Dialogue, on the other hand, does not rule out the first track. It is no concession to Pakistan and is an exercise to explore avenues of moving the bilateral relationship forward and to convey our concerns.
Another issue in focus is the desirability of engaging with a civilian set up in Pakistan against the backdrop of an unsettled civil-military equation. Because of the long history of the army’s primacy, the establishment of full civilian control will be a gradual process. That should not make Nawaz Sharif an interlocutor of no consequence in our eyes. He has won his mandate in an election that saw the first democratic transition in Pakistan upon completion of the outgoing government’s tenure. Being the most influential politician from Pakistani Punjab, he is better placed than most to resist pressures from the Punjabi-dominated army. He hosted former PM Vajpayee in 1999 despite opposition from the army and the Jamaat-e-Islami. He supported the moves of the PPP government to liberalise trade with India. He called for improved relations with India days before the May election and has called for a “brave revision” of Pakistan’s foreign policy.
I agree that we need to judge Sharif by his actions and not by his words. Can his government speed up the trial of the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks? Can he revise Pakistan’s foreign policy and prevent the launch of terror activities against us from Pakistani soil? Can he complete the trade liberalisation process by giving MFN status to India? We will know the answers to these questions when we engage with him. Our refusal to do so would weaken his hand vis-à-vis the very forces that we wish to see tamed in Pakistan. In that case, we will never know if and what Nawaz Sharif is capable of delivering.
Sharat Sabharwal is former High Commissioner of India to Pakistan
The views expressed by the author are personal