There is something about the month of July and Manmohan Singh. He presented his first budget as finance minister in the same month in 1991; oversaw a budget for the first time as a prime minister in July 2004; faced and won a crucial trust vote on 22 July 2008, after his government had been reduced to a minority following the withdrawal of support by Left parties; and, then finally on 16 July, his out-of-the-box offer to Pakistan in the Egyptian city of Sharm el-Sheikh triggered a mini political crisis for the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA).
Few in Parliament, including from within the Congress party, appreciated the positive effort and more disapproved of its details. The Opposition can’t be blamed, because it is its dharma to question, and rightly so, government action/inaction.
The positive is that the Opposition managed to shake off the inertia that gripped it after defeat in the April-May general election. The bigger concern is the covert challenge thrown to the Prime Minister from within the Congress party that could potentially weaken him. Publicly everybody ranged behind the Prime Minister, but behind the scenes it has been a prolonged stretch of palace intrigue.
As a result, the danger now is that Singh may go on the defensive and eschew all such initiatives, and India and Pakistan would have lost an opportunity to break the status quo in the relationship—defined by mutual hatred and distrust. Unlike before, status quo has larger underlying risks: Pakistan as a nation is in the throes of an internal crisis and faces the risk, though intellectuals in Pakistan disagree, of imploding and being overrun either by extremist elements or forces supported by them. This would be disastrous for India; even if they do not assume power, but are able to influence Islamabad, the situation would get worse.
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On the face of it, nobody is opposed to moving the ball forward with Pakistan. My instinct is that most of India fully backs such an initiative; the aspirations of its citizens have been stoked and they see the six-decade hostility with Pakistan as an impediment in realizing their dreams.
The political critique of Singh was premised on two issues: Inclusion of Balochistan—an area that has seen internal unrest since the 1970s—in the joint statement issued by the two countries, thereby implicitly suggesting that India had something to do with the situation there; and, delinking of actions against terror to revive the composite dialogue between the two countries. Both were perceived as reversing India’s foreign policy thrust and also risked India being included in the list of nations, such as Pakistan, that have been accused of exporting terror. But what was overlooked were the probable reasons for the effort.
Through his initiative Singh was seeking to give the Pakistani establishment room to politically manoeuvre against its home-grown terrorist cells, which have now turned into a Frankenstein. No political establishment worth its salt, in either nation, can be seen as taking radical initiatives at the behest of the other. By delinking the issue of terror, Singh had freed the arms, as it were, of the Pakistan establishment; similarly, by including Balochistan, Pakistan has been provided a rhetorical victory.
The error is that the deal has been inked with the political leadership, which everyone knows does not have a lien beyond Islamabad—something akin to Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last of the Mughal feudal dynasty, claiming to be the emperor of India after British forces suffered an initial defeat during the 1857 mutiny. A genuine out-of-the-box initiative would mean talking to the army and Inter-Services Intelligence, the intelligence arm that is controlled by the army and the chief architect of Pakistan’s terror export strategy.
And, as Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president, Centre for Policy Research, argued in his column in The Indian Express on 31 July, beyond a point, this line of reasoning could be self-defeating. According to Mehta, including Balochistan in the joint statement feeds Pakistan’s sense of victimhood and would, in fact, become an obstacle to its ability to address its problems. “Only Pakistan can save itself. The test of its resolve will not be that it claims diplomatic victories. The test will be the day it does not need rhetorical crutches to provide cover to it to move decisively against terrorism directed against India,” Mehta wrote.
Which then brings us back to the risks.
The first obvious one is that of another terror attack, similar to the audacious one in Mumbai on 26 November; it would be an unmitigated disaster. Second, Singh’s defensive posture, especially after the Congress party leadership expressed only calibrated support to him during the debate in Parliament, may restrict him and imperil any further steps—such as freer people movement, resuming sporting ties and so on. So far, publicly, Singh has not exhibited any signs of a rethink. We will have to simply wait and see how and whether he moves the ball forward again.
Finally, I would like to leave you with a poignant thought shared by an erudite friend who, unfortunately, does not want to be identified. Responding to last week’s Capital Calculus the person remarked: “Isn’t it strange that talking to our neighbours is defined as an out-of-the-box thinking?” What an idea, Sirjee!
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at email@example.com