Sunday, March 19, 2023
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Three clever by half

For all the smartness of its political class and all powerful army, Pakistan has lost half of its people and territory, has less of Kashmir and is now seen as a global migraine.

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Just about a few months back (‘Pak daydream, wake-up call’, IE, March 20) I had written that the Pakistani establishment suffers from periodic bursts of delusion, about once in eight years or so. Something does happen in their circumstances that they convince themselves that they are winning. What they are winning, of what consequence that victory will be or how durable, they get too excited to ask themselves. They are going through one such phase now. They think that they have the key to global peace and security and control the political fate of Barack Obama and David Cameron. That’s indeed a serious turnaround for a nation that was until the other day being described as a failing state. The one difference from the past is that usually they think they are winning something against India. Now that they think they have the entire world, particularly that weakling Obama, at their mercy, that feeling is headier than ever. That is when they begin to blunder.

The Islamabad disaster of last week, particularly Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s utterly supercilious handling of the joint press conference with S.M. Krishna, is to be seen in that light. Whatever the merit of G.K. Pillai’s statements on the eve of this meeting, it did not serve anybody’s purpose, least of all Pakistan’s, that Qureshi drew a comparison between him and internationally acknowledged terrorist Hafiz Saeed. But Qureshi just felt smart saying that. In the process, he ruined his own engagement.

If his government was so angry with Pillai he could indeed have made a mention of it at the press conference as something he brought up with Krishna at the talks, and the visit would have looked less like a disaster. But that would have been out of character with the overly cocky and socially superior style of the typical Pakistani interlocutor in an engagement with an Indian counterpart.

If this is another of those periods of we are winning euphoria, Pakistan’s problem is further compounded by the arrogance which transcends the negotiations through our 63-year history. More often than not, there has been a social, cultural (which includes political culture), even generational gap between Indian and Pakistani negotiators. Krishna may be a Fulbright fellow and a sharp-dresser, he is 78, speaks haltingly, has slow reflexes and an almost-too-measured tone of the old-style Indian politician. Qureshi is a much younger, Cambridge-educated feudal type whose biggest turn-on is playing to the gallery. Funnily, while Krishna is genuinely urbane, socially, but draws his political power from his rural base among the peasant middle caste of Vokkaligas, the very anglicised Mr Qureshi is actually the custodian (Sajjada nasheen) of his ancestral dargah (Bahauddin Zakariya) in Multan, from which last year he collected Rs 6 crore in tributes from the faithful. The two personalities could not be more mismatched.

This is just the kind of equation where the too-clever-by-half Pakistani interlocutor would get carried away. As Qureshi did.

Also read: Was Ajmal Kasab’s hanging enough or can government do more to get 26/11 Pakistani masterminds?

The problem existed in the sixties as Sardar Swaran Singh engaged Bhutto in protracted negotiations over Kashmir. Even God would have struggled to find a more mismatched pair. One, almost an upper-class Englishman, and the other, a salt-of-the-earth Punjabi politician. One, probably the richest feudal in the subcontinent, and the other, a small-town product of grassroots politics. It was also one of those periods when the Pakistanis thought they were winning as India was so punch-drunk from the war against China, a collapsing economy and food shortages. Bhutto would complain endlessly how irritated he got with Swaran Singh, and not only for what he saw as his stalling, dilatory tactics but also for the way he spoke English. Every time Bhutto, the brilliant lawyer, thought he had reached what mathematicians would call the QED point, mainly on the argument that if Kashmir was a Muslim-majority state and if people wanted to go to Pakistan why should India not let them go and thereby complete the process of Partition, Swaran Singh’s deadpan response, in his heavily Punjabi-accented English, would be, But what to do, India is a seculiar country.

And there were other gems like the matter having been referred to the skuirty council. Bhutto and his clubby hangers on laughed a lot behind his back, but the fact is that Swaran Singh was a brilliant negotiator who understood his brief very well and conceded nothing in a phase when India was at its weakest. What also helped was that those days there were no live televised press conferences after each round of talks.

Barring exceptional periods, like Indira Gandhi and Bhutto at Shimla, their offspring at Islamabad and Gujral and Sahibzada Yaqub Khan in 1989, the same mismatch has continued. And it has continued to confuse the Pakistanis. When Musharraf came to Agra he had been warned by his briefers that Vajpayee took a long time thinking and that he would need to be patient. Musharraf came out exasperated from the first round and told his entourage Vajpayee took for ever replying to anything. One of them said that maybe his mind takes time processing the information, and another suggested that maybe his processor is a 286 and not a Pentium. The same superciliousness of the English-speaking Pakistani social class was evident again.

Of course in a conversation some years after he had ceased to be prime minister, Vajpayee once told me how exasperated he was with Musharraf’s cocky, immature (waahiyat) style. He would take out a new draft of the joint declaration from his pocket, make a few changes in long-hand as we talked, and then say, OK, we agree, so let us sign. And then when I would say, arrey bhai General Sahib, I have a cabinet, I have to discuss with my colleagues, he would say, but I am president, you are prime minister, who else do we need to consult? That, incidentally, was another time when the Pakistani establishment thought it was winning as it believed India was so rattled by the then prolific fidayeen attacks that it was suing for peace. Musharraf’s cocky grandstanding at Agra destroyed that peace process as much as Qureshi has done in Islamabad this time.

Also read: Pak is broke, IMF calls for stronger fiscal measures 

The generational gap in the three odd pairs of negotiators I have mentioned was evident. In two cases the Indian was 20 years older than his Pakistani counterpart, in one 24 (Krishna 1932, Qureshi 1956).

There are lessons in this episode for India and Pakistan because they are fated to keep arguing and negotiating for a long time still. For India, the diplomatic and internal security establishments will learn to work in harmony as they have never needed to do in the past. On foreign policy, and particularly Pakistan-centric issues, the only other ministry that mattered in the past was defence. Now the home ministry is a key player and somebody needs to build bridges between North and South Blocks. For Pakistan, the lesson is the old one, but it is not likely that they will learn.

I had said in that National Interest column that Pakistan’s greatest tragedy is that its strategy is often made by brilliant tacticians, so it wins numerous small battles, but loses the big ones. For all the smartness of its foreign educated political and diplomatic class and the dash of its first class army, it has lost half of its people and territory, has less of Kashmir than it did at ceasefire in 1948 and a proud and ideological Islamic republic is now seen as a global migraine. For evidence that the essential nature of that establishment is not about to change soon, do not look at Qureshi’s overly dramatised TV talk. Look only at the three-year extension to Kayani.

Postscript: I met Qureshi for the first time in 1992 in Islamabad. He was then finance minister in Nawaz Sharif’s provincial cabinet in Punjab. Pakistan was then caught in several centre-state disputes, the stuff of usual democratic governance. Qureshi asked me if I had read the Sarkaria Commission report on Centre-state relations in India. I said the report was too thick for me to read, but I had done a story on how its implementation was delayed with an interview with Justice Sarkaria. Qureshi asked if I could send him a copy of the report, which I did at once on my return. All I can say is that in 1992 Qureshi looked genuinely curious about Indian democracy, even respectful, and a lot more measured than his current arrogant style.

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