Spinning the peace roulette

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A brave step forward SM Krishna and Hina Rabbani Khar inked a deal to liberalise the bilateral visa regime
A brave step forward SM Krishna and Hina Rabbani Khar inked a deal to liberalise the bilateral visa regime
Photo: AP

SO, WHY are India and Pakistan in such a hurry, building a media campaign to sign an agreement?” A friend’s tweet made some of the conciliatory steps taken by foreign ministers SM Krishna and Hina Rabbani Khar in Islamabad on 8 September sound gigantic. Such scepticism was not limited to this particular tweeter but was also reflected in the attitude of many journalists covering the meeting. There were many who were keen to present this “big leap” in relations since 1965 as “short change”. Why wasn’t there any roadmap on Manmohan Singh’s visit to Pakistan? Why were Pakistani leaders so eager to visit India when Singh was not keen to reciprocate? “Was this yet another move by the West to get hold of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons?” my friend piped again.

Such reaction is more than an expression of hawkishness. It is about creating mental firewalls to protect one’s mind that has grown with the idea of natural animosity. In fact, my response to the friend was: “Do you call 66 years of anger and violence as being in a hurry?” The relaxed visa regime, confidence-building measures across the Line-of-Control and increased trade will help in diluting some of the negative perceptions held by the general population about each other, mainly because the people of India and Pakistan don’t know each other. Despite all the Indian movies watched in Pakistan or the common heritage, the fact is that the average Pakistani and Indian are complete strangers divided by an iron curtain that very few are able to penetrate. There is a general tendency in India to look at a Pakistani from how people view India’s Muslims, which is a faulty lens. The two neighbouring countries are indeed two kinds of experiments in post-colonial State-making, which makes them different on many counts but similar in certain others; all of this can only be understood when people get a chance to explore the other.

Like the Twitter-sceptic cited above, there are others who tend to look at the current peace process through the prism of short-termed political realism — Manmohan Singh wants to leave a legacy behind and Asif Ali Zardari is keen to showcase this as a political achievement. While such short-term gains may be true, these do not necessarily explain the multiple layers of interests that seem to have pushed the current peace process, especially from Pakistan’s side.

I really wonder if my Twitter friend would call the current peace initiative as a hurried process if he was able to appreciate the efforts put into this by the business, industrial and political community of the country. Although it can be a heart-wrenching experience for a Pakistani democracy-buff to hear the policymaking elite in Delhi lecture them about how a military dictator was good for Pakistan and for bilateral relations, the fact remains that the initiative taken by Gen (retd) Pervez Musharraf after 2004 only reflected the cumulative consciousness of the political elite of the country to improve relations with New Delhi. In fact, Benazir Bhutto was the leader who started to turn the country’s foreign policy around from her father Zulfikar’s rhetoric of a “1,000 years of war with India”.

For Pakistan’s political leadership, peace with India is an existential issue. This is perhaps the only way they can make a dent in the net value and power of the armed forces. However, peace with India still remains an existential issue for the armed forces, too, as strengthening of the peace process is bound to drive an internal demand for a peace dividend in the country.

I can recall a conversation I had with a taxi driver in Karachi in early 2004 after Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit for the SAARC summit. For this young Pushtoon boy in his late 20s, who had grown up in the largest cosmopolitan city of the country, peace with India was worth looking forward to because it would bring greater investment in education and health. And when I tried to draw his attention to the contentious territorial disputes, he begged me to have patience.

BUT THEN, why would current army chief Gen Ashfaq Kayani underwrite the ongoing peace initiative, as is the general impression? What was negotiated and agreed upon by the two foreign ministers in Islamabad is also the result of the consistent pressure put on the General by the business community. Indeed, Gen Kayani must find himself stuck in a “between the devil and the deep blue sea” situation — the country’s mounting economic pressures on one hand versus the need to keep the Indian bogey alive for the morale of his men.

Given the fact that Pakistan’s economy never went under a strategic restructuring and depended largely on foreign remittances and aid, there was no thinking regarding the survival of small-and medium-scale industrial enterprises, which collapsed under tremendous pressure from the dumping of Chinese goods. With added threat from unceasing power cuts and shortage of natural gas supply, especially in Punjab, the medium-and large-scale industry is struggling hard to survive. In fact, experts are of the view that there is limited growth of industrial capital in the country, which will be further reduced in the coming years due to numerous reasons, including poor governance. Under the circumstances, the mercantile capital that exists is looking for markets for survival and making gains. Hence, the real devil versus the deep blue sea is actually about being forever economically challenged or opening up trade with India to counter the pressure built due to Chinese economic gains in the Pakistani market.

Economically, Pakistan’s strategic depth may lie in its South Asian neighbours

Big industrialists in Punjab and other parts of the country such as Nawaz Sharif, Pervez Elahi are eyeing the Indian market for trading the fast-consumable items they produce, like sugar and cement. The Sharif family and even the militaryrun sugar production units had benefited during the 1990s from sugar export to India.

However, Pakistan has limited options when it comes to tradable commodities. Some experts believe that greater benefit will accrue by Pakistan, eventually becoming a transit route for both China and India. This will certainly be a tough one for Gen Kayani, who, as many believe, may be supporting peace on the eastern front so that he could engage on the western front. This naturally raises a question about how long will this peace initiative survive?

Surely, in Kayani’s mind, the peace process is a tap that could be turned off at will as has happened in the past. A related scenario is that the tap could be turned off if there is guarantee of some financial supply from the US, China and West Asia. While China is not keen to directly bankroll Pakistan’s deficit spending, and relations with the US are on a slippery slope, the money from West Asia and other Arab States will tantamount to nothing but short change. Economically, Pakistan’s strategic depth may lie in its South Asian neighbours.

The army has not made any visible move to disengage from the militant non-State actors, especially those whose main raison d’être was war with India. This could be for several reasons such as using these assets on the western front, inability to unwind them in the short term, or the uncertainty of India’s commitment to eventually resolving territorial disputes, which Kayani thinks may be the peace process’ eventual outcome. Thus far, the military-friendly-banned outfits have their influence and relevance, which was obvious in the case of The Hindu’s bureau chief being denied a visa for Krishna’s visit. There is yet another issue of Kayani’s capacity to take his generals along, particularly in the eleventh hour of his career. Earlier on, Musharraf had also claimed complete support of his generals, until it proved otherwise. While many would term the previous about-turn as being caused by the inherent insincerity of the Pakistani army high command, it’s also important for Indian policymakers to consider GHQ’s lower threshold for waiting for longer spans to see some positive results of peace. The Generals easily get nervous when they don’t see something tangible happening. Some could even link a possible visit by Manmohan Singh as one of the few indicators of good intent.

As the political leadership on both sides keep their fingers crossed, hoping for the best outcome, the one positive development is that there are additional actors in Pakistan who want to see the peace process flourish. How effective are they at the game of peace roulette turning in their favour remains a million-dollar question.

Siddiqa is an Islamabad-based columnist and the author of Military Inc
[email protected]

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