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State of the neighbours

india Updated: Aug 15, 2010 01:37 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Hindustan Times
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If Pakistan today was, as Mohammad Ali Jinnah labeled it, only “moth-eaten” there wouldn’t be so many furrowed brows in New Delhi and Washington. Pakistan is now eaten by violence, bitten by militant Islamicism, crippled by a failing state and infected by security delusions. The Near Abroad

Which is why, with India on a trajectory of rising capability, Pakistan has become an increasing matter of concern. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has reportedly told aides that the biggest barriers to India’s rise are energy, education — and Pakistan. There is light in the tunnel regarding the first two, but not much is going right when it comes to the latter.

There are two broad schools of thinking regarding Pakistan. One argues India’s neighbour has so badly gone off the straight and narrow that it is structurally incapable of coming to terms with India. New Delhi should forget about dialogue and instead build moats and walls along the mutual border. Mumbai 26/11 was a huge fillip to this school. If the Pakistani leadership okayed this, why are we talking with them? If they didn’t okay this and it still happened, why are we talking with them?

The other argues that Pakistan is still salvageable. That its military and civilian leadership are prepared to carry out a rapprochement with India, it is just a question of bargaining on the price and working out the process. Neither is easy, failure will litter the path. But like a venture capitalist, every

Indian statesman needs to gamble because if it clicks the benefits would be humongous.

Singh is obviously of this school. We cannot isolate Pakistan by ourselves, his aides like to say, so we must engage. The remarkable success of the back channel talks with Pervez Musharraf is the strongest bit of evidence for the defence. If Musharraf, the author of Kargil and worse, could have moved so far, then nothing is impossible.

Both Singh and his predecessor, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, have kept trying to talk to Pakistan. Even after their peace processes have seen the wind being taken out of them, they have gotten back right up and tried again.

So the prime minister can be expected to try again, despite Sharm el Sheikh and the recent foreign ministers’ meeting in Islamabad.

The increasing complication, however, is Afghanistan. In the same way, as US diplomats complain, that Washington cannot talk to Pakistan without the subject going on to India. In the same way, any Indian attempt to talk to Pakistan runs afoul of Afghanistan. It isn't on the agenda, but it lies in the back of the Pakistani negotiators' minds.

General Ashfaq Kayani seems to mark a regression as far as the military is concerned. Though he was part of Musharraf's back channel efforts, he seems to believe his former boss gave away too much at the table. He has resurrected talk of Pakistan needing to have the “strategic depth” of Afghanistan. He sees the Lashkar e Tayyeba as an asset for his military. He also believe the men in khaki should wield control of Pakistan from behind a civilian façade.

Unsurprisingly then that with Kayani's coming to power, the peace process has ground to a halt. New Delhi will persevere, if only because Singh, like almost every Indian prime minister for years to come, believes he has no choice. What is more murky is what will it take to get the general to be more flexible about talks.

One can only theorise. Kayani, like much of Pakistan's elite, believes it is just a matter of a few years before the US troops withdraw from Afghanistan.

They believe this will pave the way for a Taliban takeover of Kabul and end what they see as the pro-Indian regime of Hamid Karzai. He may also believe, as do many in Pakistan, that the day the US withdraws their own problems with home-grown militancy will also come to an end.

A recolonized Afghanistan, a sense of having defeated the mighty US and an end to the violence wracking the Pakistani heartland.

Would not having talks with India under such a scenario give a negotiator a stronger hand to play? If that is what Kayani is thinking, then it may be a few years before it becomes clear whether his scenario (or an alternative one where the US does not withdraw) comes true. And talks will meander until then. By which time the United Progressive Alliance II may well be into its homestretch.