PM should keep Pakistan on the backburner and focus on key domestic issues instead
On Monday, the Lahore High Court decided that the police had no case against Hafiz Muhammad Sayeed, the founder of the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba. In the process, they tossed the ball back into New Delhi’s court. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has to now decide whether he wants to persist with the peace process with Islamabad, or wait till there is some clearer indication that Pakistan has decided that it will no longer be a state sponsor of terrorism.
Insiders say that in a month or two, freed from the burden of public opinion, the PM intends to re-initiate the peace process and the composite dialogue with Pakistan. He has a clear window of about a year before the Bihar assembly polls in 2010 and he hopes to make full use of it.
Perseverance in the cause of peace is praiseworthy, even heroic and statesmanlike. It is the kind of stuff that garners Nobel Peace prizes. On the other hand, persistence in the face of sure failure is foolhardy, and possibly vainglorious.
In the case of Pakistan, persistence may be a virtue, but so would prudence.
The PM’s approach to Pakistan is betraying a stubborn persistence with a policy that is proving to be unworkable. Over the past several months, or actually the year since Pervez Musharraf was forced out of office, it has been clear that the Pakistan problem is not easily amenable to solution.
As it is, the twists and turns in the PM’s policy have been bewildering. In Russia, inadvertently or otherwise, he snubbed the president of Pakistan on the issue of terrorism. Then, three months later, he veered to the other side and agreed to the impugned Sharm-el-Sheikh statement.
The peace process has a two decade old history. Despite the thousand-year war fulmination of V.P. Singh, the onset of the rebellion in the Kashmir Valley in 1990 persuaded India to push for peace with nuclear-armed Pakistan. Despite Islamabad’s continous support to terrorism and separatism, New Delhi sought to promote peace through a slew of confidence building measures among which was the composite dialogue, first proposed by J.N. (Mani) Dixit in 1994.
The dialogue envisaged a step-by-step approach to solving small problems first, building confidence, and then resolving the big ones — the Pakistani support to terrorists in India and Jammu & Kashmir. However, what the process has revealed is that the big problems have held the resolution of the small ones hostage. In fact, the composite dialogue has become a meaningless talking shop. As for the peace process, it remains a triumph of hope over experience.
After a quarter century of trying to make peace with Pakistan through dialogue, even while the latter has thrown armies of terrorists and saboteurs against us, the time has come for a change. Not only are there limits to what we can achieve with our neighbour, but those limits have been reached.
The situation demands a policy of flexible containment. This requires India to build an unambiguous deterrent capability vis-à-vis Islamabad, and also set our own house in order.
It is not that there are none in the Pakistani establishment who want to make peace with India. Unfortunately, they are weak and divided. Their ambiguous response to the Mumbai carnage and their handling of its aftermath are the best indicator of their weakness and confusion.
The political window that is going to open up after the Maharashtra elections is not exclusively for peace with Pakistan. It may be more fruitful for the Prime Minister to pursue a variety of outstanding issues — economic reform, the Maoist challenge, China, peace in Jammu & Kashmir, removal of institutionalised discrimination of the Muslim community in the country.
The last two issues — the internal negotiation with separatists in Kashmir and the Sachar committee recommendations — are begging for attention. Success there could yield enormous dividends, not in the least in the country’s Pakistan policy. After the victory of the Congress-National Conference in the state assembly elections last year was confirmed by their sweep in the Lok Sabha polls earlier this year, there have been expectations that the Union government would quickly resume the dialogue with the separatists suspended since 2007.
It would also move on the issue of autonomy of the state in relation to the Union government. The separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and the new chief minister Omar Abdullah have both called for a resumption of the dialogue.
At the time the centre-state and centre-separatist dialogue failed to move ahead because it was said that the government in New Delhi was too “weak” to make a deal with the moderate separatists. Since then the government in Delhi has become “strong” but the dialogues remain elusive.
In the meantime, the ground situation has become distinctly brittle. While violence has declined to its lowest levels, separatists have found it convenient to use incidents of alleged rape, molestation and police high-handedness to stoke street protest against the authorities. This year infiltration from Pakistan has again gone up sharply. These militants have not yet displayed their hand, but it is a matter of time before their presence impacts on the ground situation. Therefore, it is imperative that the government take up the issue and move ahead on it. To wait for the Pakistan end of the peace process to deliver before settling with domestic separatists would be futile.
The second issue, too, is one that is of great importance. There may be a post-Mumbai lull in terrorist actions in India. But this is at best temporary. Attacks are likely to resume as soon as the Indian Mujahideen networks disrupted last year are replaced.
The struggle against violent Indian Muslim extremists is a challenge of an enormous magnitude. The government should not mislead itself by the fact that the mainstream Muslims remain firmly committed to the path of democracy. After all, it just takes a couple of hundred radicals to create a security night-mare. But these extremists are sheltered and nurtured by a larger pool of unhappy people. It is the government’s task to take up the gauntlet of the Sachar Committee recommendations and move ahead.
No doubt the BJP will seek to capitalise on any move to address the issue of institutionalised discrimination against the Muslim community in the country. That is what makes the challenge of addressing the issue so difficult. But the outcome could pay the Congress party substantial political dividend, and the country’s security would get a payoff by reducing the vulnerability of its minorities to blandishments of radical ideologies and Pakistani agent provocateurs.
The almost continuous cycle of state and national elections are distorting the country’s governance processes. There have been many voices pointing to the need for simultaneous elections to the state assemblies and the Lok Sabha. But the problem is unlikely to be resolved given the nature of parliamentary democracy. So, politics and governance will remain hostage to the election processes whenever and wherever they occur.
Just how important the cycle is apparent from the manner in which the Prime Minister shifted his post-Sharm el Sheikh Pakistan stance with an eye on the Maharashtra elections. Now he has one clear year in which to act. But he would be better advised to focus on issues that are ripe for resolution rather than chase the will o’ the wisp.
The economist-turned-politician has to understand that politics is eminently the art of the possible.
This article appeared in Mail Today October 14, 2009