In a news discussion on Pakistan earlier this week, NDTV’s Prannoy Roy asked me, with a mix of exasperation and longing, if it would be possible some day for India to leave Pakistan behind (aside?) and carry on? The cause for exasperation that particular evening was the Pakistan government’s declaration in their national assembly that they had banned Jamat-ud-Dawa while the organisation continued with its activities brazenly and its chief had been freed just the other day. Longing, because if only India were to be rid of that deadly distraction that hobbles it at every step, it would be so much better placed to leverage its many newfound strengths.
Now, at a pinch you can even shake away the burdens of history. But geography? Can you ever escape that? Can an entire nation collect green cards or H-1Bs or whatever and migrate some place far, far away? While it is a simple enough truism that you cannot choose your neighbours, our most difficult neighbour is also a product of recent, bitter history. It makes it that much more challenging for an Indian leadership to leave it behind or aside. Pakistan can be neither our Canada (there is far too much historical baggage), nor Mexico because that kind of disparity is just not there.
Yet, somehow India’s leaders must find a way now to peel away. We have invested a whole decade of foreign policy effort to get the Americans to de-hyphenate their India policy. Are we now capable of de-hyphenating our own foreign policy from Pakistan? Can we think creatively enough to even move in that direction? I use the expression creative thinking because for so long now our immediate reflexes and even policy responses have come to be governed by the same hostility and insecurity that block any new thinking.
If you look at how similar conflicts have been resolved in the recent past, the most interesting example is the Camp David Accords that ended the conflict between Israel and Egypt. That one agreement ended the possibility of an all-out war for ever in the Middle East, and it came within a decade marked by two all-out wars and several smaller ones. The essential feature of the settlement that resulted in Egypt recognising Israel, which in turn returned the Sinai desert, was that the Americans pretty much back-stopped it entirely, Israel’s security was under-written, and Egypt’s armed forces were promised and given all the toys they wanted but on the condition that they were going to be of no nuisance to Israel. Could a customised variant of this ever work in the Subcontinent?
I raised that question in a tiny group that Colin Powell met on one of his visits as secretary of state. Probably sufficient time has passed now to recount parts of that conversation. He was discussing likely ways to a solution and I asked if an Egypt-type approach may work for Pakistan. One of his senior aides piped in to ask how such a thing would ever work when the moment the US even offered Pakistan as little as a replacement for a damaged F-16 undercarriage you Indians go ballistic. He also said that even on that visit (in the course of Op Parakram) the Indians only talk to us about five LeT guys who were caught infiltrating last week rather than engage on what to do with Pakistan. But Powell was more patient, willing to engage in what he thought was an interesting yarn. I am new to your region, he said, self-effacingly. But Musharraf as Sadat… that might be something to think about. But your situation isn’t more complicated than the Middle East in the seventies.
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I said I wasn’t so sure because I did not know enough on the Camp David Accords, but asked, somewhat wickedly, that now that his government had embarked upon some kind of a Project Musharraf, did they have a Hosni Mubarak parked in some closet just in case Musharraf disappeared from the scene like Sadat? Powell was still game. That is a very good line, sir, and I will use it in Washington, DC many times, he said, and then added after a long, mischievous grin: And you can be sure that you shall be given no credit for it.
It is by now evident that Washington’s Project Musharraf was indeed a variant of the old Project Sadat. And the graduated movement towards some kind of a permanent solution with India, marked by the Islamabad Declaration with Vajpayee, then Manmohan Singh and back-channel diplomacy led on the Indian side by Satinder Lambah, was linked with this. It also failed so close to the finishing line because fate took Musharraf away from power. Not through an assassin’s bullet, but through his own political stupidity and big-mouth arrogance. And when he went away, particularly the way he went away, swept aside by a democratic upsurge, there wasn’t a Hosni to be ushered out of the closet. It ended in failure, but it was the last, and so far the most creative shot at an agreement that would have enabled us to move on, leaving Pakistan behind, aside. Or, in a more perfect world, even taking it along as a partner, not adversary.
How close that process, sustained through a government change in India, came to a breakthrough is the best reason why original thinking should not be discarded as we move on, and through many setbacks, perfidies and betrayals. We can’t go into a shell every time Hafeez Saeed appears in public even as we press for his prosecution. Saeed and the many Lashkars are not the problem. They are a symptom, or even an instrument. The basic problem is the virus that sits embedded in the mind of the Pakistani military-intelligence- bureaucratic establishment. It has built and nurtured the Lashkars as a strategic asset to keep India off-balance in peace time, and to be a force multiplier in war. No matter what their assurances, they will not give up on that asset until they are fully dissuaded, or persuaded, that India is no longer either a military threat or opportunity.
India has to engage with the rest of the world in the search for that new creative solution which may, ultimately, be a variant of the earlier one, except that Pakistan now does not have a Musharraf equivalent. That, in fact, is all the more reason why a new settlement, if it were to be achieved, must be backed by some kind of international or big-power guarantees. It will be tough, but not impossible. No nation of India’s size that wishes to rise to its true potential can do so with almost all its borders unsettled. It is now evident that the Chinese won’t settle with us as long as the Pakistanis don’t, and give them the opportunity to play balance-of-power.
Similarly, Pakistan will continue using China to play its own balance-of-power with us. The first step for us to break out of this triangulation is to find peace with Pakistan, and that can only happen with the Americans not merely leaning heavily, but even under-writing some Egypt-like arrangement to change the very nature of Pakistani society and establishment. That is how we can de-hyphenate ourselves from our geography, and even some history.
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