June 19, 2008

Indo-Pak Challenges and Opportunities

The following article appeared in the Daily Times (Pakistan) on June 19, 2008.

With worsening domestic security, uneven relations with the United States, and its own survival in limbo, the new regime in Islamabad has more urgent issues on its mind at present than Kashmir

The high-level talks between India and Pakistan last month seem to have gone off smoothly after a short hiatus and the installation of a new government in Pakistan. The appearance of bonhomie between officials of both sides was buttressed by several symbolic demonstrations of goodwill, including an agreement to provide consular access to prisoners, discussions to possibly establish special economic zones along the border, and even talk of visa-free travel between the two countries.

But while the optics were clearly good, it is unclear whether there were any significant material developments on the fundamentals of the bilateral relationship, particularly the proverbial elephant in the room: Kashmir.

Indian Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon remained adamant that the talks were of “unparalleled depth, intensity and quality”. But if any substantial progress was made last week on the Kashmir issue, the two sides certainly held their cards closely to their chests. Still, the very act of resuming talks was welcome given the disquieting series of events which led up to them.

First, there was the series of bomb blasts in Jaipur on May 13, which killed up to 80 innocent people. New Delhi, as with several recent instances of major terrorist attacks, refused to instinctively pin the blame on Pakistan, for which it received praise from many in the Pakistani press.

Second, there were reports of up to three instances of firings by the Pakistani military across the Line of Control and international border in recent weeks, despite a ceasefire. Islamabad denied the incidents but some in India saw this as providing cover for infiltrating militants.

Lastly, there was the revelation to the media by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s Special Assistant on Finance Hina Rabbani Khar and Additional Foreign Secretary Zameer Akram of a statement allegedly made by US President George W Bush during his meeting with Gilani in Sharm el-Sheikh on May 18. Bush, according to Khar and Akram, said the Kashmir issue was “ripe” for resolution.

While widely quoted in the Indian and Pakistani media, this statement was not corroborated by the Americans present. There was a sense in India that the attribution was quite possibly an attempt by Gilani’s aides to internationalise the Kashmir issue and that this went against years of tacit understanding between India and Pakistan to deal with the issue bilaterally. Earlier, in an interview, Pakistan’s envoy to New Delhi, Shahid Malik, had, however, explicitly emphasised the need for India and Pakistan to deal with the issue bilaterally.

The healthy trend in India-Pakistan relations since the January 2004 normalisation process is that in years prior, any one of these three developments would have provided the Indian side with ample excuse to postpone or cancel talks. The Jaipur bombings may even have triggered a military response, similar to what followed the attacks on the Indian parliament in December 2001. That this did not happen only shows the process has now developed its own structures and there is greater maturity on both sides to deal with specific problems without rocking the boat.

In Pakistan, despite political differences, the composite dialogue was one of the few issues on which Benazir Bhutto agreed publicly with President Musharraf. “If General Musharraf has proceeded well with this composite dialogue with India, it is certainly something we will continue to follow,” she told an Indian television station in an interview last September.

There is need for more cooperation in tackling terrorism, though. With an Indian general election scheduled to occur before next May, the domestic political environment in India will lend itself to no-compromise anti-terror policies and overall militarism. This, in turn, could force a more populist-oriented Indian leadership to take a sterner position vis-à-vis Pakistan, and put renewed pressure on Pakistan’s eastern border at a time when its military clearly has its hands full on its western flank. With terrorism on the rise within Pakistan’s borders, and the continuation of the US-led counter-insurgency in Afghanistan, the last thing Pakistan should want is renewed pressure from its east.

With worsening domestic security, uneven relations with the United States, and its own survival in limbo, the new regime in Islamabad has more urgent issues on its mind at present than Kashmir. This is exactly the juncture at which the two leading states of South Asia need to move forward to take advantage of the opportunities and take on the challenges.