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HindustanTimes Sun,24 Aug 2014

When the iron's cold

Barkha Dutt   February 18, 2011
First Published: 23:11 IST(18/2/2011) | Last Updated: 10:34 IST(1/9/2011)

Among the several questions that could have been asked at the prime minister's media conference - but weren't - one omission stood out for how interestingly it captures our malleable emotions. There wasn't a single question about Pakistan.

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There were questions on the turmoil in Egypt; even on cricket and the World Cup. But no one, it seems, wanted to quiz Manmohan Singh on what led to the resumption of the dialogue process with Pakistan earlier this month in Thimphu, Bhutan. And unlike the forgotten query on the controversy surrounding the appointment of the central vigilance commissioner, the absence of questions on Pakistan appeared to be from disinterest - not oversight.

In other words, we are so distracted by domestic concerns that Pakistan is barely on our minds. Of course, the fact that there has been no major terror strike or volatility in the internal security situation has much to do with our lack of focus. But the truth is that if we - the polity, the media and the people at large - were not so preoccupied by the sense of churn within, the resumption of the talks with Islamabad would have invited the same merciless scrutiny as it has in the past. In fact, Pakistan is so off our collective radar that we've barely noticed the exit of the establishment's bete noire: the bumptious, often abrasive, Shah Mahmood Qureshi.

What makes things interesting is that the Pakistani mindspace seems to be just as distracted. As the assassination of Salman Taseer reminded us, Pakistan's internal implosions are, of course, existential challenges. Despite the avowed India-fixation of General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, in many ways, Pakistan today seems more at war with itself than with India. With competing philosophies and groups laying claim to the country's future, the cracks along its faultlines are deepening. Currently spooked by spy games that Washington is playing in its backyard, the growing domestic controversy over Raymond Davis (an American arrested for shooting two Pakistanis; he claims in self-defence) only underlines the divisions within the country's ruling establishment over how to navigate the minefields on its journey forward as a country.

Some say Qureshi lost his job as foreign minister for asserting that Davis never had the diplomatic status the Americans are now claiming. Others argue that Qureshi is only playing to the growling anti-American chorus with his proclamations, in case there is an early election. The whispers suggest that Davis is a CIA contractor collecting information on the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba and a deal has already been struck by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) government to pave the way for him to be handed back to the Americans. Either way, Pakistan's media are focused on the turmoil within. Even Kashmir hardly seems to inflame passions in the same way. So much so that Pakistan's annual marking of Kashmir 'solidarity day' on the eve of the meeting between the two foreign secretaries in Thimphu seemed more ritualistic than felt, and passed without much hoopla on either side.

Ironically, this emotional indifference may provide the best opportunity we have had in a long time for a dispassionate review of the India-Pakistan equation. For too long now, both countries have been trapped in a dysfunctional drama that alternates between love and hate. The schizophrenia has resulted in a deep-seated hostility at times and inexplicable bursts of affection at other moments. Remember the roar of applause when the Pakistani contingent marched in during the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games? Too many Indo-Pak meetings feed the subcontinental craving for filmy drama right down to slammed doors and jostling over joint statements that never were.

The best thing the two foreign secretaries did for the dialogue process was to save it from the curious and contradictory love-hate melodrama that has defined similar meetings in the past. The future of the two countries belongs neither to the candle-waving romantics who convene at Wagah nor to the venom-spewing hatemongers who unleash their bitterness online (while, of course, befriending every Pakistani possible on Twitter). It belongs to the 'pragmatics' - to borrow a word from Nirupama Rao - who are able to see Pakistan beyond the Punjabi prism of the painful past.

Almost unnoticed and unacknowledged is the remarkable fact that Kashmir is no longer the main obstruction to peace between the two countries. Pakistan's former foreign minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri has elaborated on the contours of a Kashmir settlement that had the nod of what he calls "all the principal players". He includes in this category, the present army chief of his country. Interestingly, we have seen neither a denial nor a confirmation of his assertions by our own government, with the foreign secretary only offering a "no comment" in a recent interview. But all other things being equal, a broad philosophical consensus does exist on what a possible solution could be to the longstanding Kashmir problem. And it still borrows from the essential template created by President Pervez Musharraf's four-point formula.

That's the good news.

The bad news is that in many ways the challenge of  terrorism is much more intractable than the Kashmir dispute. The 26/11 strikes had precious little to do with the politics of the Kashmir problem. Violence perpetrated against India, its cities and its people by fundamentalist religious groups is now the primary hurdle to cross for peace to have any real meaning. And many doubt that Pakistan's civilian government has the strength, even if it has the will, to do so. With emotions at an ebb on both sides, it's a good time to find out.

Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV
Barkha Dutt
barkha@ndtv.com  

The views expressed by the author are personal.


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