The current event-driven and personality focused Indo-Pak peace process is a dead horse. It is time to dismount and inter the dead horse.
Another episode of India-Pakistan peace talks soap opera came to an end this week, albeit on an acrimonious note. It is the world’s longest running soap-opera, made for great television viewing, and has discontinually run for six decades now. The major episodes of this soap-opera are bilateral events between the two countries. In the past decade, these events have usually accompanied multilateral summits; UN General Assembly meetings and SAARC summits being the ones often overshadowed by these public spectacles.
Earlier these Indo-Pak events used to be an offshoot of — highlights yes, but still only a part of — the bilateral diplomatic process. However the roles seem to have been reversed in the recent years. Now these events have instead become the drivers of the process, with each such opportunity attracting saturated media coverage and intense public scrutiny in both countries. As these events have gained in prominence, so has the propensity of the two governments to manage the events. Sometimes these events do run as per script — as at Thimpu — and are acclaimed by the media as a huge success (although this blogger had disagreed even then); at other times, the event is poorly scripted leading to adverse reaction in one or both the countries — Sharm-el-Sheikh being a case in point; and then there are instances when the actors get carried away and start delivering unscripted lines — remember Musharraf at Agra — which results in an over-hyped event ending up as a disaster.
The botched-up bilateral summit between the two foreign ministers at Islamabad earlier this week falls in the last category —- unscripted lines popping up suddenly to the chagrin of the event managers. Some prescient commentators had seen it coming, those more sanguine about the outcome before the event were evidently mistaken in their beliefs. The post-facto blame game has already started in the media, with Siddharth Varadarajan of The Hindu pillorying the Union Home Secretary for speaking the truth about ISI’s role in the Mumbai terror attacks. Besides my fellow blogger The Acorn‘s rebuttal, Siddharth’s contentions have been robustly countered by Vir Sanghvi. Vir rightly says: “…let’s not expect our civil servants to lie about events like 26/11 only so that the Pakistani foreign minister’s feelings are spared. Any peace process that is based on lies is doomed to fail anyway.”
Is there no hope for the Indo-Pak diplomatic process then — ignoring the fact that the nomenclature of a peace process, like that ugly buzzword trust-deficit, is too hi-falutin and places a huge burden of expectations on the process? If yes, what is the way ahead to push the process?
One of the possible ways to push this process forward is to turn the clock back — shift the focus back from the events to the process itself. This means that these events where political leaders of both countries can indulge in grandstanding must end immediately. Instead, the complete process should shift to under-the-radar, low-profile negotiations between the officials of the two countries. In today’s times, there are interests of far too many government agencies, ministries and institutions involved in the process to be equitably represented by only the foreign ministries from both the countries. If the equally pressing, and often interlinked agendas of various stakeholders — home, defence, water resources and commerce ministries, besides the intelligence agencies, to name a few on the Indian side — have to be addressed concurrently, a knuckled-down approach involving a wider spectrum of government bodies is essential. The example of US-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue, where a wide array of officials and ministers of both the governments are involved, proves the efficacy of this broad-based model in current era.
However there are a couple of major differences between the US and Indian engagement with Pakistan. Unlike the high-profile nature of the Pakistan-US interaction which is again focused on events — a requirement of their dysfunctional relationship — the India- Pakistan interaction must be low-profile, away from the media glare and involve officials, not ministers, who are responsible for dealing with those subjects as part of their charter of duties. The US-Pakistan interaction, essentially being transaction based, is short-term in nature. In contrast, the ideal India-Pakistan interaction will have to be a very long-drawn process, wherein the political leadership must resist the temptation to show tangible results immediately. As the process will be bureaucratic-driven, routine and away from the spotlight, the ebb and flow of this interaction will not be a cause of consternation for the government, caused by an intense, and often adversarial media coverage.
Keeping the political leadership away till the negotiations have been completed between the officials lends another huge advantage to the government. There is a limited political capital and time available to the political leadership in a democracy. Rather than fritter it away on the mirage of an immediate and impossible peace with Pakistan, the political leadership of a developing country like India can expend it on many other internal challenges facing the country. From problems in J&K, NE states to the threat of the Maoists on the internal security front, consolidating economic growth and pursuing the next set of economic and labour reforms, provision of quality education and public health, and reinvigoration of governance and public services delivery mechanisms, there is enough that needs to be tackled by the government on a greater priority.
Indubitably, as India becomes internally stronger, it will be in a position to negotiate with Pakistan on a better footing. India’s rise in the last decade, based on its internal growth, has already removed the hyphenation between India and Pakistan (When President Clinton visited India a decade ago, he was virtually forced to make a stop-over in Pakistan. Now Secretary of State Clinton clubs her trip to Pakistan with a trip to Afghanistan without a murmur from any quarters). If Indian leadership can focus on building itself internally, it might eventually leave the whole process of chasing peace with Pakistan nearly inconsequential, if not completely irrelevant at some point in time in the future.
Pakistan, in a similar vein, can use this period of low-profile engagement to focus on even bigger existential challenges facing the country and the society.
It goes without saying that Pakistan has many power centres. Equally well-known is the fact that Pakistan Army has the final say when it comes to its relations with India. The civilian government of Pakistan thus has limited say on its foreign policy towards India and is thus incapable of delivering on any promises made to the Indian government. Moreover, the division of powers between the President and the Prime Minister in Islamabad has further compounded the decision making processes of the Pakistani policy makers.
In comparison, the military or the intelligence agencies have limited, if any, say on India’s foreign policy. Whether that is a good thing by itself is a question that needs a separate answer. But does the current Indian Prime Minister really have the political capital to push for his dream of a peace with Pakistan, in what many perceive to be at any cost to the country? After the debacle of Sharm-el-Sheikh, wherein the government had to face a lot of flak in the Parliament and was pilloried for its stance in the media, the top political leadership of the UPA must be extremely wary of any repetition of the Sharm-el-Sheikh saga. As Dr Manmohan Singh has a very limited political role, he does not have to bear the political consequences of his actions on the diplomatic front; it is the Congress President who is responsible, if not answerable, for keeping up the political and electoral fortunes of his party.
The marginalisation of the current NSA, Shiv Shankar Menon, considered by many to be the architect of the Sharm-el-Sheikh fiasco, from the Indo-Pak parleys is a clear pointer that the role of the PMO in the bilateral talks has been curtailed. The sudden change in Mr Krishna’s stance, who was virtually parroting the official Pakistani line on Hafiz Saeed till a couple of months ago, to the one which he displayed in Pakistan can also be thus explained. While harsher theories about a conspiracy to clip the wings of the Prime Minister in case he succeeds and becomes an alternate power centre in the party may be far-fetched, the point of interest here is that the process, as formulated by the current Indian Prime Minister, is incapable of being culminated. It is instead distracting him and his government from focusing on bigger internal challenges facing the country. India can ill-afford for that to happen.
There are too many layers to the Indo-Pak engagement on both sides of the border. The process as we understand it today — driven by events and personalities — is not only a non-starter but akin to a proverbial dead horse. When you are riding a dead horse, buying a stronger whip or greater riding ability won’t help it move forward. Harnessing several dead horses together to increase the speed or asserting that “This is the way we always have ridden this horse” won’t help either. Tribal wisdom says that “when you discover that you are riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount.”
It is time for India to dismount this dead horse, inter it and start with a new pony — a broad-based, low-profile, bureaucratic, long-term and institutionalised interaction with Pakistan where events are offshoots of the process, and aspirational political leaders incidental to the outcome. There is a fair chance that pony might eventually turn out to be a thoroughbred galloping towards the distant dream of Indo-Pak peace.
But let us start with dismounting the dead horse first.