India’s peripatetic external affairs minister, Pranab Mukherjee, heads for Islamabad on 21 May — preceded by foreign secretary Shivshankar Menon — to review progress of the fourth round of the composite dialogue process with his counterpart. These visits no doubt have been carefully planned to restart the detente after self-imposed restraint by New Delhi ever since Pakistan recorded political turbulence on the sacking of its chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, in March 2007.
The atmosphere for the visit has already been sullied with carefully timed intrusions on the international border and violation of the ceasefire on the Line of Control last week. Terrorist attacks at Samba and Jaipur have vitiated the atmosphere further, giving cynics another swipe at the futility of negotiating with Islamabad, whatever the colour of the regime. In any fractious relationship, pessimists are usually right. This time, too, they may not be way off the mark.
First, the basis on which Mukherjee’s visit was planned — the installation of a popularly elected and stable regime — has come unstuck. The coalition between political opposites — the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), or PML(N) — is getting slowly unglued, much as PPP co-chairman Asif Zardari would like to blame the media — he was quoted in the Daily Times: “This is not as big a crisis as is being portrayed by the media.” For the affable Zardari, it may not be a big deal, but the withdrawal of the PML(N) ministers from the cabinet denotes the separation before the divorce.
Even if reconciliation comes about, a greatly weakened coalition under an abnormally frail Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani can’t take the hard decisions key to converting the process of confidence- building into peaceful coexistence. In case Gillani is replaced by Zardari as the political grapevine suggests, his manoeuvring space would be restricted. By then the Indian leadership, closer to the hustings in Kashmir and a general election, would be averse to any risky political overtures towards Pakistan.
What is of greater concern is a lack of fundamental change in Pakistan’s internal power structure, its approach on terrorism and long- standing policy of strategic depth. There are clear signs of manipulation by the “Establishment” — a euphemism denoting President Musharraf and his coterie, the PML-Qaid, the intelligence establishment and the army. With the PPP tacitly backing his stay in power and a senate loaded with PML(Q) veterans, Musharraf is still well-entrenched. The mysterious hand guiding politics was evident in attempts to postpone by-elections in which Shahbaz Sharif is to win approval for anointment as Punjab’s chief minister.
The approach to terrorism has also turned full circle, with renewed deals with militant groups, the army pull-out and exchange of captive soldiers and militants with no counter-guarantees in Waziristan. Recent terror strikes in India confirm the worst fears from the reported renewal of Islamabad’s support to groups such as the Lashkar e-Taiyyaba and Hizbul Mujahideen. The terror network in India has been so smoothly laid out with sleeper cells, explosive experts and “outsourcing” that attacks remain anonymous for long. This is evident in how Menon responded to media queries on invoking the joint anti-terrorism mechanism with Pakistan after the Jaipur blasts:?“We are still in the process of investigating.” Not that much is available in the 7/11 serial blasts in Mumbai or the Samjhauta Express in Panipat.
A dangerous QED is continued espousal of the theory of strategic depth by the establishment in Islamabad and Rawalpindi (Pakistan’s general headquarters). This is also obvious as Nato commanders in Afghanistan noted a 50% rise in terror strikes after Pakistan began peace talks with militants.
So, all that Mukherjee and Menon can achieve is a temporal assurance of continuing confidence-building measures, more intra-Kashmir bus rides, easier visas and some trade softeners.
Rahul K. Bhonsle is editor, South Asia Security Trends. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org