It does not require much effort to realize that India’s relations with its western neighbour are icy. There are periodic bouts of effusion and warmth—over cricket, the so-called track II diplomacy, “unofficial” envoys, people-to-people contact and a host of other unorthodox efforts—but overall, the political temperature between New Delhi and Islamabad remains, to put it mildly, in the sub-zero range.
One important reason for India’s inability to take fruitful steps has been its studied shunning of a vital constituency in that country: the army. Recent news reports suggest that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has appointed an unofficial envoy to reach out to the Pakistan’s chief of army staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. The prime minister’s office denied the report promptly. Even if no such step has been taken, talking to Kayani would a right step.
It has been more than three years since a civil government came to power in Islamabad. For two countries with difficult relations, that is sufficient time to initiate dialogue. That has not happened. In practice, the talks keep getting derailed on trivial matters: the names by which these go and non-existent issues being raised during meetings are two examples. In reality, however, the problem is that New Delhi’s civil counterparts dare not cross the red lines etched by the army. An internal division of labour in Islamabad prevents a meaningful dialogue. Afghanistan and Kashmir are two areas where the assent of the armed forces is essential before the elected government can do anything. India will need to do some heavy lifting if this state of affairs is to be changed. Talking to the army is part of this process.
It has been suggested that reaching out to Kayani would undermine the democratically elected Yousaf Raza Gilani government. When it comes to democracy, our dealings with Pakistan fall in a different league compared with what we do elsewhere. The reason for this is simple: Over the decades, public opinion in that country has been inflamed to such an extent that a democratic government is bound to run into political problems with its constituents if it takes creative steps to resolve problems with India. There are serious limitations to what democracy can do in improving ties. For that reason alone, no option should be ruled out. And that includes General Kayani.
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