Whatever your views on Pakistan, it is hard not to admire Manmohan Singh for the commitment he has demonstrated in his quest to improve relations with our unruly neighbour. The Pakistani foreign minister was being provocative when he said in Thimphu last week that Singh had neither the support of his own party or the political establishment in this quest. But his view was not far from the truth.
<b1>In a sense, Mission Pakistan flows directly from Singh’s nature. Each time he has been in a position of influence he has adopted a core issue and held firm. When he was finance minister he remained deeply committed to economic reform. In his first term as prime minister, he would not budge on the nuclear deal, even threatening to sacrifice his government on this issue. This time around, it is Pakistan that is Singh’s core issue.
Politicians fall into two categories: tinkerers and structuralists. Take economic reforms. Throughout the 80s, governments had tinkered with the licence raj to make it more liberal. But Singh is a structuralist: he abolished it altogether. His approach to Pakistan reflects the same mindset.
By now, we recognise the fundamentals of Singh’s view. He believes that an emerging superpower like India belittles itself if it is obsessed with a border dispute with a small neighbour. India needs to go beyond this conflict and should be magnanimous in settling it.
Here, too, Singh’s view is structural. He wants a one-time resolution, not mere tinkering. Early in his prime ministership, he told me that if the Indian State could solve such problems as Nagaland and Mizoram then there was no reason why Kashmir should remain intractable. The problem, he conceded, was that Nagaland and Mizoram had no external component. In the case of Kashmir, no resolution was possible without Pakistan being involved in the settlement.
All Indian PMs say they want to improve relations with Pakistan. There are talks, summits and grand gestures. But usually they leave no lasting impact. The only PM to have significantly altered the terms of debate was Indira Gandhi when she transformed the very structure of Pakistan by breaking it up.
Singh believes that he can end the dispute because he has the outlines of a solution in his head. Both sides will give their respective parts of Kashmir much greater autonomy. There will be a soft border between their Kashmir and ours so that people can move freely and goods and services can travel across the border. There may even be some form of joint control though of course, the extent of this would depend on political considerations.
Those who say that the PM’s commitment to Mission Pakistan is determined solely by pressure from the United States are mistaken. Yes, of course, there is pressure. And it does influence policy. But the main motivation remains Singh’s conviction that he can resolve this problem once and for all during his prime ministership. This is his core issue and he wants a structural change in the relationship between India and Pakistan.
On previous occasions when Singh has decided to stake everything on a core issue, he has only had the political establishment to contend with. When he dismantled the licence raj, politicians were appalled but the public at large supported him. The nuclear deal had no political support but few Indians were as bitterly opposed as Prakash Karat. Most were indifferent and many supportive.
The difference with Mission Pakistan is that Singh does not have much support for his view within the country. Strategic affairs experts may tell us that his solution is fair and equitable but politicians have spent the last 60 years telling us that Kashmir is ours and that Pakistan has no right to it. Singh’s view requires a fundamental shift in mindset: in effect, we would have to accept that it is a disputed territory and that we would need to compromise on sovereignty to resolve the dispute.
This time around, when politicians oppose the terms of a settlement, they will find the kind of public support that they lacked in their opposition to reforms and the nuclear deal.
And then, there is the problem of Pakistan itself. History demonstrates that Pakistani governments are reluctant to be bound by treaties and agreements reached with previous governments. In 1972, we believed that the Simla Agreement would form the basis of a new India-Pakistan equation. In fact, Pakistan quickly repudiated it. No Pakistani government today considers itself bound by the terms of the Simla Agreement.
Singh has already run into that problem. His government says that it was on the verge of reaching a settlement with President Musharraf when he stepped down. But the successor government is unwilling to pick up from where Musharraf left off. So, effectively, it is back to square one.
Can one ever have a lasting resolution with an unstable country where foreign policy is not based on any kind of national consensus? Even if Singh manages to secure a final resolution of the Kashmir dispute with Asif Zardari’s government, will successor governments accept this resolution and regard it as legitimate?
And then, there are the very special problems that Pakistan faces. With each passing day, the government seems to matter less and less. As the Pakistanis themselves say, something like 26/11 happens every week in Pakistan. Large parts of the country are lawless and anarchic. By its own admission, the government is unable to control terrorism or to rein in every jihadi group.
Does it make sense to try for a historic resolution at a time when Pakistan is in such a mess? We know how strong Indian public opinion is. But Pakistani public opinion is even stronger. Pakistanis have been told that India has illegally occupied Kashmir and that Hindu soldiers are murdering Kashmiri Muslims and raping their daughters. So, Pakistanis will also resist any settlement that allows India to keep Kashmir. And in Pakistan, public opinion is expressed through Kalashnikovs, grenades and RDX.
In the circumstances, it is hard to be optimistic about the PM’s initiative. The intentions are laudable, the resolution formula is a sensible one. But in politics, timing can be everything.
And unfortunately for India, we have a structuralist PM with a reasonable solution to a seemingly intractable dispute at a time in history when no solution is possible and the very structure of Pakistan seems in danger of collapse.
Singh is a decent and brilliant man who has contributed greatly to creating the India of the 21st century. It would be a shame if he devoted his entire second term to the impossible dream of an India-Pakistan resolution. India needs his talents in many other areas. It’s time for him to look for a new core issue.
The views expressed by the author are personal