India’s attitude towards Pakistan has changed from being patronising to apathetic. And it seems that Islamabad just can’t stomach that, writes Ashok Malik.
Advocates for greater civil society engagement between India and Pakistan have three essential arguments. First, they contend a vast majority of Pakistanis want friendship with India but are being thwarted by a small minority. Second, with Indian help Pakistani civil society and democracy can yet win the battle against Islamism. Third, a democratic and ‘mainstreamed’ Pakistan will guarantee amity.
To be fair, these ideas are not new. Till even the 1990s, it was fashionable to believe that once the Partition generation — or the children of the Partition generation, those with once-removed experiences of 1947 — moved on, India and Pakistan would be able to relate to one another as normal countries.
They would not necessarily love each other or always cooperate. The sense of competition would still be there, but not blind demonisation. In the media and in popular culture, at football matches and occasionally at diplomatic conferences, Britain and France still disparage each other. Neither side sees this, however, as a resurrection of Agincourt and Crecy.
How has this theory panned out? The past 10-odd years have changed Indian attitudes towards Pakistan. After the attack on Parliament in December 2001, India was livid and at one level ready for war. Troops were mobilised. For a whole host of reasons, India did not and could not go to war.
The conflict in Afghanistan; the presence of Western strategic assets and operatives within the borders of Pakistan; the understanding that a war would hurt the Indian economy and businesses that were becoming dependent on foreign capital and clients; the fact that the world could not watch two nuclear powers fight each other and not be expected to worry; the self-admission that India had no defined political objectives for a possible war, no blueprint for the future of Pakistan, no desire to effect regime change, no proxies in its polity — all of these were obstacles.
India realised its autonomy had been curtailed. That was the price for growing up — as an economy, as a nuclear power, as a nation. Fortuitously, it was in about 2002 that the Indian economy pressed on the accelerator. The following years transformed the Indian mind-space. They also left an impact on Indian perceptions of Pakistan.
Today, the western neighbour is treated more with condescension than antipathy. India is not Pakistan-obsessed in the manner of previous generations. Its middle classes see their country as in another league. They presume — correctly, incorrectly, exaggeratedly — that India is in a two-horse race with China, not in a two-mule derby with Pakistan.
The Pakistani military-strategic establishment obviously hasn’t taken to the diminution with equanimity. As it sees it, it can still blackmail India. In a part of the world too often associated with turbulence, chaos and false starts, India has invested effort to push itself onto the list of stable, ordered societies. By facilitating 26/11-type ‘urban guerrilla’ terrorist attacks, the Pakistani Praetorian Guard is convinced it can block India’s advance.
What of Pakistanis beyond the garrison town of Rawalpindi and the intrigues of compromised political elites in Islamabad? How does one approach middle Pakistan? For a start, it would be prudent to not confuse middle Pakistan — which is, one supposes, an amalgam of Punjab, the society that has been the precariously-designed nation’s sheet anchor, and of the more transactional Sindhis — with the English-speaking intellectuals who appear on TV, write op-eds and meet equally anguished Indians at goodwill seminars.
While well-spoken and earnest, the members of the itinerant Pakistani intelligentsia are not quite representative or in control of their country. They cannot realistically become the power establishment in Islamabad, displacing the army or even the politicians who, corrupt as they are, still represent sectional, provincial interests. It would be downright over-optimistic to believe Pakistani civil rights activists and liberals can actually influence policy on India. There is a difference between what is desirable and what is feasible. Pakistan is not about to throw up its own Vaclav Havel.
How then does India address Pakistan? There is no unanimous view. As Stephen Cohen once put it, “Indians are profoundly ambiguous as to Pakistan. Some would like to embrace Pakistan… Others, for example a friend of mine… wrote me a little note of all the reasons why a broken-up Pakistan would be in India’s interest… Others simply would like to ignore Pakistan. A shining India… [is] out of Pakistan’s league… India shouldn’t pay any attention to Pakistan.”
Cohen has summed up the predicament fairly accurately. There is, however, one important corollary. India is confused over the diagnosis but even if it decides on one, can it deliver any of the alternative courses of medicine? Bluntly put, does India have leverage within Pakistan to shore up its civilian institutions and help foster a middle class democracy? Conversely, does India have the covert capabilities and the hard-nosed will to dismember Pakistan if it decides that is the route to tranquillity in South Asia?
At the heart of the matter is a compelling verity India just does not want to admit: it has astonishingly little influence within Pakistan. This makes any proposal — war-mongering and demands to bomb the country or, at the other end of the spectrum, calls to promote democracy in Islamabad, patronise kebab shops in Lahore and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with civil society in Quetta and downtown Peshawar — a non-starter.
Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based political commentator.
The views expressed by the author are personal