The Pakistan conundrum: think out of the box

The Pakistan conundrum: think out of the box
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First Published: Sun, Jul 19 2009. 10 05 PM IST

Updated: Sun, Jul 19 2009. 10 05 PM IST
Some years ago, I happened to be working for an editor who, in his wisdom, decided to lump me with a human resource that in banking lexicon would be aptly defined as a non-performing asset (NPA). Thereafter, we were handled like twins would be by their parents. So whatever gains accrued to me were also proffered to the NPA because the editor wanted to be perceived as being even-handed. For the NPA it was a perfect situation; for me it was bitter and frustrating. I finally dealt with it by upping and leaving for another job.
Unfortunately, this is not an option you have with a permanent neighbour, say in the case of Pakistan. If you juxtaposed my former editor with the US, one can begin to fathom the hyphenated and troubled coexistence of the two largest countries in South Asia for the last six decades and more. On the one hand, you have a country which has, partly out of its own strategic choice, embraced terrorism, and on the other, a country that is steadfastly seeking a seat at the global high table. Not only has the hyphenation of these two countries led to three wars between them and wanton destruction, but has also provided an ideal lever for others to use to their advantage.
Matters took a turn for the worse as the global strategic outlook changed, especially after 9/11, coincidentally at a time when India commenced its economic ascendancy. In fact, under pressure from India, the US formally chose to remove the hyphenation a few years back when then secretary of state Condoleezza Rice declared a seminal shift in US foreign policy towards South Asia, ahead of signing the historic India-US civilian nuclear deal.
Since then, however, partly because of the circumstances— the rising incidence of cross-border terror attacks and Pakistan’s geographically strategic existence as Afghanistan’s immediate neighbour—and lack of out-of-the-box thinking, India has effectively reinserted the hyphen into the relationship. So much so that the measure of diplomatic success or failure has assumed very petty proportions. It would vary from whether the US had censured Pakistan or whether a key diplomat would visit India first and Pakistan later; even better if Pakistan is left out of the diplomat’s itinerary.
Hence, it was not surprising to read in the papers last week that secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s schedule did not involve a stopover in Pakistan, either before or after visiting India.
What is it that makes us think thus? In part, it is the bitter history of Partition and the cold-war legacy. Part of the reason is probably cultural, wherein we love to grab the high moral ground on all issues. This is more worrying since it is increasingly evident that India is often more content with rhetoric than substance. A good example being the public snub, which is now being claimed as inadvertent, of Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during a bilateral meeting last month between the two countries on the sidelines of a regional summit in Yekaterinburg, Russia. For a moment, it did feel good; we told them off, didn’t we. But what did it achieve?
Similarly, after the audacious terror attacks in Mumbai last year on 26 November, there was a groundswell of rhetoric, some of which was most volubly echoed in the media. Now, more than eight months later, what do we have: a defiant Pakistani administration and the terror threat unabated.
Worse, nothing seems to have changed from India’s point of view. The US, except for periodic name calling for public effect, regime change notwithstanding, continues to prop up Pakistan. And, domestically India saw the worst year of terror attacks in 2008, culminating in the Mumbai attacks.
Is there a way out, then?
Yes, if India grasps some fundamental aspects about Pakistan and demonstrates some out-of-the-box thinking. First, it is not a homogeneous state and is riven with cultural and ethnic differences, which is why Balochistan, Punjab and Sind are pulling in different directions. So, what is good for one section is not for another. Secondly, there are multiple layers of authority in the country, with the army being the principal source of power. Thirdly, its people and the establishment differ fundamentally. While the establishment is totally sold on the American cause, the average Pakistani thinks obversely.
Every time India has demonstrated out-of-the-box thinking—remember Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s famous bus journey to Lahore, followed by the Pakistan military-inspired Kargil war—it has failed because the army was not on board. There is no institutional relationship that can facilitate a direct dialogue with the Pakistan army at the moment. It operates through the politicians, who effectively wield very little power with respect to game-changing decisions. It won’t be surprising, therefore, if Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s clumsy out-of-the-box effort, too, fails for the same reason.
Should we give up all efforts and shutter down? Absolutely not. Ignoring the problem will not make it go away. The thing to do is that while diplomatic efforts have their place, purpose and time, the government should not overlook the gains that can accrue from continuing to push economic linkages and people-to-people contact—whether it be through official export of Bollywood films, sports or culinary skills. It may sound romantic and far-fetched at this point, but a groundswell of popular support for rapprochement may be precisely what could give it the requisite impetus.
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at
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First Published: Sun, Jul 19 2009. 10 05 PM IST