Uncertain period

The turbulence in the domestic politics in both countries virtually precludes significant moves by either side.

The specifics of what happened on the Line of Control separating India and Pakistan through the obscure period from last Sunday to Tuesday involving the armed forces of the two countries may never be fully known.

But it appears that the two incidents of alleged incursions by the two armies across the LoC were interconnected.

Of course, this does not detract from the fact that there has been vastly disproportionate use of violence on the part of the Pakistani side in the brutal killing of two Indian soldiers. The killing of the Indian soldiers has been “reprehensible, barbaric and dastardly”, but on the other hand this is also not the first time such a thing has happened. What emerges is that the two most recent incidents are probably of a piece with the sequence of events spread over past few weeks and incrementally, what began as a local affair morphed into a test of will and prestige. The genesis is reportedly to be traced to a unilateral Indian move at the local level to construct an observer post, to which Pakistan apparently took strong exception as an act of violation of mutual understanding expressly prohibiting such activities on the LoC.

The good thing is that there seems little interest on the Pakistani side to play up these incidents even for rhetorical purposes. Indeed, this is in contrast with the eruption of anger and outrage on our side, with the nationalist lobby demanding ‘retaliation’ by Indian special forces, calling for the abandonment of the dialogue process with Pakistan and pillorying the government for being indecisive and timid in standing up to alleged Pakistani belligerence and provocation. However, the authorities on both sides while talking tough, have calmed the tempers and appear determined to prevent the development from wrecking the peace process.

On a broader plane, though, the developments do underscore the fragility of the India-Pakistan dialogue process and its vulnerability to ‘accidents’ and mishaps or mindless acts. An honest introspection is called for. The fact of the matter is that the peace process brought dividends. The ceasefire on the border that came into being in November 2003 has by and large held so far (although the instances of violation have increased in number); notwithstanding the militant camps in Pakistan and infiltration, J&K is witnessing a period of calm that is conducive to restoration of normalcy and stability; overall climate of relations has improved and steps have been taken to ease the movement of people and increase trade. Aren’t these gains substantial? They most certainly are. Aren’t they worth preserving? Indeed, so.

Real sense

Yet, the gains from the dialogue process are far from irreversible. The dialogue process hasn’t gained traction in a real sense. What has been achieved so far is a tinkering with the outer crusts of a frozen relationship, while core issues remain embedded within. This includes even ‘doable’ issues. The Indian approach has been, on the whole, over-cautious or too tough – depending on how one looks at it. Of course, a variety of inhibiting factors could explain the Indian predicament – trust deficit, the opacity of Pakistani intentions, lack of progress on terrorism, Pakistan’s political economy, etc. But, equally, the government appears to lack the imagination to come up with a ‘big picture’ to make Pakistan a genuine stakeholder in good-neighbourly relations and to make the relationship predictable.

A window of opportunity probably existed during the past 2-year period to make meaningful advances on substantive issues. But the Pakistani government has failed to reciprocate India’s decision to accord MFN status to Pakistan to trade with India. On the other hand, given the tortuous history of the relationship, it also becomes difficult to be judgmental as to what, how much or when it is that the dialogue process could have been ‘optimal’. Suffice to say, once it became clear that the visit by prime minister Manmohan Singh need not be expected, the dialogue process began losing momentum. Meanwhile, the turbulence in the domestic politics in both countries virtually precludes significant moves by either side to inject new vitality into the dialogue in the coming months. Thus, an uncertain period lies ahead.

A refrain that is heard frequently nowadays is that India belongs to a big league with China, whereas Pakistan belongs to a lower league. To be sure, Pakistan is caught up in a quagmire of its own making.
However, the geopolitical reality is that Pakistan also happens to be a major regional power and its strategic importance to the big powers should not be underestimated. The coming 2-year period brings in new complexities.

When it comes to the Afghan endgame, which forms the core of the US’ regional strategy at present, Pakistan’s cooperation assumes a new criticality whereas India remains peripheral and is at best a benign bystander. Thus, the remarks by the US state department spokesperson on the LoC incidents should be carefully noted – “We’ve also discussed these latest incidents with both countries, urged them to talk to each other, and urged calm… counseling both governments to deescalate… If they can work it out themselves, that’s obviously best. If both parties were interested in support from the UN, etc., we’d obviously support that as well. But at the moment, we’re urging them to talk to each other.” The message is clear: The international community is a stakeholder in regional security and stability in South Asia.

(The writer is a former ambassador)

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