Three days from now, Union Home Minister P Chidambaram will visit Islamabad to attend a meeting of the home ministers of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation countries. As the tough talking Home Minister, Chidambaram has been the face of India’s counter-terror response since the terrible Mumbai attack of November 2008.
The big question is whether he will forge an independent second track in dealing with Islamabad, or he will be content to be an adjunct to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Track-I process. Mr Chidambaram knows well, as was evident in the case of the 76 police personnel killed by Maoists in April, that with power comes an enormous amount of responsibility. He would have to answer for any major terrorist strike on Indian soil. The Prime Minister, on the other hand, has the luxury of taking the high road, talk of “trust deficits” and history.
In their own way, both engagements are important and necessary. Security constitutes an enormously important element of our relationship with Pakistan. It is useful to have the minister directly involved in managing it dealing with his counterpart in Pakistan. With Prime Ministerial summits, there are always huge expectations which, in our current circumstances, cannot be met. Yet there is need for high-level practical relations between the two countries.
You may argue that there is a world of difference between the authority of the union home minister of India and his Pakistani counterpart, Rehman Malik, who is actually hanging on to office with the help of a presidential pardon. But we can only work with the tools in hand. Authority in Pakistan is fragmented, notwithstanding the efforts being made to strengthen the hands of Parliament and the Prime Minister through the 18th Amendment to the constitution. There will be many who will argue that there is little point engaging with Islamabad in the present climate of enervation there.
But the issue is whether India needs Pakistan more than they need us. I would argue that it is India that needs Pakistan more because of the latter’s ability to destabilise our country and distract us from the task of economic growth and all-round development. This imposes a bigger challenge on us to craft our policies in such a manner that we can overcome the obvious problems and try and obtain positive outcomes.
Of course, this is easier said than done. As it is, the discourse seems to be stuck in Islamabad’s point of view at the level of India’s demand for Pakistan to root out the perpetrators of the Mumbai carnage. From the Indian point of view it seems stuck at Islamabad’s insistence that the two countries resume the composite dialogue. Ironically, composite dialogue was an Indian device aimed at ensuring that the subject of the India-Pakistan dialogue is not confined to Kashmir, and
Chidambaram’s visit is in itself a build up to the visit of External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna later in July. A positive outcome of the Home Minister’s visit could set the stage for a successful visit by Mr Krishna, which could lead to a full-fledged resumption of the Indo-Pakistan dialogue process.
That may be the official scenario, but reality is bound to intrude.
One problem is that in the last five years, the ground situation has changed dramatically in Pakistan. India, on the other hand, has witnessed great change, but on a largely evolutionary track. In 2009, according to a recent RAND Corporation study, there was a 48 per cent increase in attacks in Pakistan over the 2008 levels. Further, these attacks have become more complex. Thus the April attack on the US consulate in Peshawar used a truck bomb, machine guns and rocket launchers.
More alarming has been emergence of a kind of Terror Central in North Waziristan where a conglomeration of groups are sharing personnel, knowledge and facilities to mount or plan complex attacks not only in Pakistan, but in countries like the United States and India.
The Rand study also acknowledges that using militant groups is woven into the DNA of Pakistani policy since independence and that this is in turn gets public support because it is linked to “historical and social milieus of jihad, which has long been viewed as a legitimate mode of conflict.” Nuclear weapons have, if anything, strengthened this tendency.
While we may be progressing in beginning with a Home Minister-level dialogue, we have yet to hear from the Pakistan Army. Over the last couple of years there have been aborted efforts to get the armed forces of the two sides to interact with one another. That has yet to happen. Though such an engagement appears to be a positive thing, were it to take place, there are question marks about what it can achieve considering the enormous asymmetry between the role of the Army in the Pakistani system and its limited role in India.
India’s aim has to be to alter Pakistan’s strategic behaviour. This is, given the situation, an enormous exercise. Yet, we have barely scratched the surface of the problem. In the meantime, things are going from bad to worse in Pakistan. In 2007, Pakistan was listed 12 in a Failed States Index brought out by the Foreign Policy magazine, in 2010, it has gone up two notches to rank No 10; Somalia is number one on the list and Afghanistan number six. The irony is that despite this, Islamabad is gambling that its proxies will soon “win” in Afghanistan. All that this “victory” will achieve, perhaps, is that both countries will move a notch or two towards Somalia’s status.
Yet, the Prime Minister is right in saying that Pakistan is a neighbour and we have no options but to try and improve relations with it. But whatever be the strategic imperative for them to resolve their problems and come closer to each other, it is the tactical problems that compel attention. Nothing is more compelling for most Indians today than the need to prevent the recurrence of a Mumbai-type attack. Yet, when you look at the record, it is impossible not to come away with the conclusion that Islamabad has done precious little.
It is not a matter of dealing with the big issues like Hafiz Muhammad Saeed’s status, but the provision of information about the people who planned and directed the Mumbai attack. We know that there is a huge trust deficit between the two countries. But this is a deficit arising from the willful actions of Islamabad. But it most certainly cannot be surmounted by pretending that the problem does not exist, that it will be overcome with the passage of time or that New Delhi must pander to some Pakistani fantasy about India’s activities in Balochistan and Afghanistan. The Mumbai attack has become something like the October 1962 Chinese attack on India—a watershed event that has seeped deep into the public consciousness. Indeed, this is not something that just the Pakistan government needs to address, but the denizens of the South Block as well.
Mr Chidambaram’s sojourn in Islamabad suggests one way that this can be done—through practically addressing the problem, rather than garbing it in diplomatese like “trust deficit”. We can only hope that it will yield the outcomes we have been waiting for. But don’t bank on it.
This is a long haul.
This appeared in Mail Today June 23, 2010