India must work closely with the newly-elected Nawaz Sharif Government in Pakistan. But, while it must explore enhancing relations in areas of trade, New Delhi must remain vigilant all the time.
Mr Nawaz Sharif’s return to power and his exuberant shower of constructive announcements offer hope, both to the Pakistani people as well to those in India wanting to improve relations with Pakistan. But India has had a mixed experience dealing with democratic regimes in Islamabad — at the start, things appear to be promising but suddenly the relationship turns sour. This was the case with Mr Sharif’s previous stint as Prime Minister, when friendly summits and goodwill trips to Pakistan by the NDA leadership were reciprocated with heavy infiltration in Kashmir.
Also, Mr Sharif, groomed under the cunning shadow of former President Zia-ul-Haq initially had little problem with limited military-political interface within the Pakistani establishment. His perception changed, however, after his Army chief Pervez Musharraf’s coup d'état in the post-Kargil days. While in exile, Mr Sharif has supposedly become more gentle, practical and reliable. So, he exudes hope to the crowds in Pakistan as well as to the Congress-led UPA regime in New Delhi, which has no strategic foreign policy for the South Asian neighbourhood.
But let us not forget that the root cause of pessimism in Pakistan lies in the fact that this country knows not how to live with rational actions. Today, Pakistan exists somewhere between the grim world of Saadat Hasan Manto and Faiz Ahmad Faiz.
These two literary greats had witnessed the making of Pakistan, and knew the country better than others and much before it was overrun by fundamentalists. A country created on religious lines, and also a product of the tussle between the elitist leaders of the Muslim League and those of the Congress, Pakistan has never been able to outgrow the complexes attached to its birth.
The history of democracy in Pakistan is blurry and replete with instances of continuous military interference, which till date distort political processes. Sixty-three years after its birth, Pakistan is far from how its founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah, an astute politician, had envisioned it. And even though a small segment of progressive Pakistanis may like to hold on to Jinnah’s vision, it is, for all practical purposes, now lost.
Its international borders notwithstanding, Pakistan’s alliances with China and the US have already compromised its sovereignty. Driven by their imperial compulsions, these countries use Pakistan to maintain their grip on the South Asian region. And this is obvious to Pakistani leaders, civil society activists and journalists.
The other factor that defines Pakistan’s geo-strategic policies is Afghanistan. The ground realities from that country plague Pakistan on a real time basis even as one powerful class of Pakistanis reap the benefits of instability. This class knows how important it is to keep stirring the pot — as, in a political order that is driven by force rather than constitutional values, it is troubled times that offer better strategic dividend than peace times.
India has the burden of history to bear when it comes to its foreign policy vis-à-vis Pakistan. However, New Delhi has often failed miserably to carry the load. This maybe in part due to the inadequacies of those who have sought to shape India’s policy towards Pakistan in recent years. Many of these so-called ‘Pakistan experts’ in New Delhi have practically no on-ground exposure to that country and only limited understanding of the historical linkages between India and Pakistan. They look upon Pakistan as a project that they need to handle. This impedes any deep and long-term study of the Pakistani problem in India.
Even New Delhi’s diplomatic corps, from the IIC to the Gymkhana generation, has failed to make its mark when it comes to strategic thinking with respect to Pakistan. Yet, India cannot afford to remain indifferent to this neighbour. As for now, India should keep playing safe with Pakistan. New Delhi may allow for an enhanced trade engagement with Pakistan, for instance. More importantly, it should support Mr Sharif so as to keep hardliners at bay in Islamabad. A fresh round of goodwill summits may also be encouraging for bilateral relations.
But through it all, India must remain vigilant. It must not be caught off-guard like it was in the 1990s when the then Prime Minister was indeed working to make a long-lasting improvement in India’s relations with Pakistan. Of course, both countries are in a different state now — this is especially true in Pakistan where the people have chosen the ballot over the bullet. Hopefully, Mr Sharif too will stay democratic and the Pakistani military will be cut to size by him. At this juncture, New Delhi should work closely with Islamabad for a positive turn in bilateral ties but while keeping its border security mechanism firmly in place.
-Atul K Thakur
(Published in The Pioneer on June18,2013)