HAVE YOU HEARD what Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not said? Even his worst critics will grant that when he speaks, Indians listen. Since he chooses his words with care, he clearly opts for silence with care. One subject that has disappeared like mist at daybreak from the prime minister’s public messaging is the endemic relationship with Pakistan.
The contrast with Islamabad could hardly be sharper. There is rarely a week in which some Pakistani leader or lesser factotum has not made some puff-chest comment about India or its government. India remains Pakistan’s all-weather alibi for all its self-inflicted and increasingly septic wounds. It is as if Pakistan’s leaders measure their relevance not in what they do for their own country but in how much they can berate India. This was always the case: in the first three decades of dissent, strife, and dismemberment between 1947 and 1971; and in the subsequent phase of hyperventilation infected with the export of terrorism.
An anti-India tirade has become a default position across the spectrum and through generations in a family-driven polity. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto promised war for a thousand years; his flexible but courageous daughter Benazir abandoned her initial attempts at rapprochement after coming to power after the death of General Zia-ul-Haq and became in the 1990s a frontline warrior on the Kashmir front in order to energise her declining popularity. She also became the self-professed mother of the Taliban, whom she described as her children. Her husband Asif Ali Zardari was more judicious, but there has clearly been a sharp relapse with Bilawal Bhutto.
In the absence of content, sarcasm and vituperation become the preferred templates. Much of it is personal, focusing on Prime Minister Modi. Perhaps this is the only course left for the leaders of a state whose security agencies went rogue in the 1970s, and whose elitist-driven economy has been going broke with remarkable persistence.
The difference with Delhi lies in indifference. Narendra Modi has formulated a cogent policy towards Pakistan: Ignore the state and punish the rogue terrorist.
Disdain carries a powerful message. Hysteria is evidence of impotence. Minimalism is the only dignified response. Let Pakistan’s leaders ravage their vocal cords and scramble across countries with a begging bowl while India concentrates on its steady march towards economic strength, ring-fence security, and rising commensurate global influence.
This message is getting under the skin of the Pakistan establishment, creating fissures and fractures along the skeins. Inevitably, any deviation from persistent and costly confrontation highlights contradictions. Pakistan’s current Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif discovered the limits of his power when he ventured to suggest a mild change of course. In an unusual departure from the norm, he told the Al Arabiya news channel that Pakistan had learnt its lesson from wars with India and now wanted peace provided “genuine problems” were resolved. He said: “It is up to us to live peacefully and make progress or quarrel with each other, and waste time and resources. We had three wars with India and it only brought more misery, poverty and unemployment to the people. We have learnt our lesson and we want to live in peace provided we are able to resolve our genuine problems… We want to alleviate poverty, achieve prosperity, and provide education and health facilities and employment for our people and not waste our resources on bombs and ammunition. That is the message I want to give to Prime Minister Modi.”
Shehbaz Sharif’s quickly aborted peace overture should be placed in context with his despairing speech on the economic crisis in his country. A nation with fertile agriculture and much aspiration in the 1950s has crumbled into a country whose operative symbol has become a begging bowl
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The initiative was slapped down as soon as it surfaced. Long before New Delhi could react, Islamabad’s hardliners, who have locked Islamabad policy in concrete, cracked the ruler sharply upon Sharif’s knuckles. The government, in a sharp rebuke to its own prime minister, issued a ‘clarification’ that there could be no talks with India until Delhi had reinstated Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir. If this is the new non-negotiable diplomatic frontier, there can be no prospect of any talks in the foreseeable future. Prime Minister Sharif might even come to India in May for a multilateral gathering like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), with or without Bilawal Bhutto in tow, but there will be no bilateral dialogue between India and Pakistan during this visit.
Every opposition leader in Pakistan seeks a holier-than-thou prayer in the hope of redemption and resurrection. Imran Khan, now leader of the government-in-waiting, tried to scald his opponent with fire and brimstone: “When those who worship money and are devoid of any ideology or belief system are put at [the] helm of affairs then this is the shameful result. Not only is he [Shehbaz Sharif] clueless why our founding fathers struggled and sacrificed to achieve the dream of Pakistan; but just to get the backing of the Indian lobby he is also ready to bury the Kashmiri freedom struggle in which over 100,000 Kashmiris have given their lives.”
Voices took up the echo across the political divide. On January 19, Pakistan’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Hina Rabbani told an audience at Davos that her country does not recognise Prime Minister Modi as a “partner” and praised his predecessors Manmohan Singh and Atal Bihari Vajpayee as “partners”. Ahem. What precisely did Singh and Vajpayee get from Pakistan in return for their warm ‘partnership’? Vajpayee went to Lahore in 1999 in search of peace and was rewarded with a deceitful but full-scale Pakistan army invasion at Kargil within weeks of his return. Two years later, in December 2001, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)-sponsored terrorists mounted a sensational attack on India’s Parliament. Manmohan Singh’s efforts to improve relations were shattered in 2008 by the vicious, barbaric onslaught on Mumbai. During all the 16 years of their combined tenure, there was a continuous deadly toll of innocent lives across India as cross-border terrorism inflicted wound upon wound in cities. If this is what Islamabad means by partnership, then it is surely time for disengagement.
Every Indian prime minister has attempted piety—I can think of no better word which quite conveys the meaning—in their policy towards Pakistan. There has been a touch of patronage, a big brother’s attitude towards a sibling with a birth defect.
What precisely did Singh and Vajpayee get from Pakistan in return for their warm ‘partnership’? During the 16 years of their combined tenure, there was a continuous deadly toll of innocent lives across India. If this is what Islamabad means by partnership, then it is time for disengagement
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The more substantive logic was what might be called the doctrine of geography. Many said it aloud: geography does not permit you to change neighbours, and some neighbours need generosity as the price of amicable coexistence. That is why Indian leaders knew how to win wars but consistently lost the peace. Jawaharlal Nehru stopped the 1947-48 war when our Army was on the verge of an advance that would have brought the whole of Jammu and Kashmir to India. Lal Bahadur Shastri won the 1965 conflict with astute and courageous leadership and then lost his way at the Tashkent peace talks in January 1966. The remarkable Indira Gandhi rewrote history in 1971 with her assistance to Bangladesh’s liberation movement, and then permitted, thanks to poor advice from trusted bureaucrats, the victory to be squandered in the Simla Agreement. She could have drawn a final line on the status of Jammu and Kashmir but left a loophole hanging which Pakistan has exploited for five decades.
IN A RADICAL departure from established thinking, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has proved that you can change the meaning of “neighbour”. A neighbour should be defined by reach, not proximity. Geography is an accident, which can be circumscribed. Let us take a relevant example. I have not counted but there are surely over 500 flights, each one loaded to passenger capacity, between India and the Gulf every week. There are no flights between India and Pakistan. So, who is India’s neighbour: the Gulf or Pakistan? Compare people-to-people relations to our immediate east and west. At Benapole, the border crossing with Bangladesh, thousands cross with casual ease within 15 minutes. It is a warm, civilised space. Between Amritsar and Lahore lies the frontier at Attari. It is frozen. Its only attraction is a rather grandiose simulation of drill by the border forces of the two countries every evening. Bangladesh is a neighbour. Pakistan lies at a desolate distance. The productive bilateral social and economic Indo-Bangla engagement speaks for itself. As, indeed, does the wasteland between India and Pakistan.
Shehbaz Sharif’s quickly aborted peace overture should be placed in context with his despairing speech on the economic crisis in his country. A nation with fertile agriculture and much aspiration in the 1950s has crumbled into a country whose operative symbol has become a begging bowl. Sharif admitted that the humiliation of asking for loans which would never be repaid was becoming too hard to bear. Even mentors and close friends seem to have had enough. China will not write off its beneficial investments. Qatar is asking for Pakistan’s national assets as either repayment or collateral. The UAE’s recent decision to roll over $2 billion is not charity, simply common sense. Since Pakistan does not have the capacity to meet its obligations, this was the only practical way of keeping the loan on the books. This is the art of pseudo-solvency.
Pakistan has no leverage left for negotiations. With foreign exchange reserves dipping below $5 billion, Pakistan is getting closer to default each day. The bustle and bravado towards the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are history. Islamabad has keeled over and accepted all the major conditions set by IMF as a precondition for the resumption of discussions. This means more suffering for the people as subsidies are slashed. As one writes, there is both a literal and figurative darkness over Pakistan that has enveloped the people in the gloom of despair.
Vladimir Putin sent a special message to Shehbaz Sharif describing Pakistan as Russia’s ‘key partner in South Asia’ and the Muslim world. Such phrases are not strewn about as seasonal goodwill. They are used with care. What could this mean?
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The true tragedy is the consistent betrayal of the Pakistani people by their self-centred and self-satisfied ruling elite. Despite a starved treasury, Pakistan has spent more than a billion dollars in the past six months on imports of luxury cars. This is only a symptom of an incurable disease. Pakistan’s elite buys Birkin handbags for $10,000 on foreign jaunts while citizens struggle to buy flour for their daily bread. This is the simple truth.
Here are a few random examples of stagflation and shortage picked up from news of the past week; this is a glimpse, not a comprehensive list. On January 23, the Peoples’ Revolutionary Front, along with regional outfits in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), began organised protests against food and power shortages, escalating unemployment and untamed inflation. In Balochistan, Mir Asadullah Baloch, a provincial minister, has complained that Islamabad has not sent federal funds amounting to over 50 billion rupees. Gwadar has become a focal point for continuing protests against Islamabad’s discrimination and Chinese “exploitation”, their preferred term for the Chinese presence in the region.
This is the onset of a summer of rage. Industrialists who have had to shut down hundreds of factories and economists who look at data have told the authorities that if the present situation continues, there will be rioting all over the country by March.
The one instance of positive news was the presence of a Russian delegation in Islamabad which promised energy, albeit with a caveat: Moscow would accept payment in the currency of a third country since Pakistan did not have dollars and no one had faith in the local rupee. Perhaps Moscow means the Chinese yuan. Beijing is not known to hand out currency in return for a handshake.
On January 19, Pakistan’s minister of state for foreign affairs Hina Rabbani told an audience at Davos that her country does not recognise Narendra Modi as a ‘partner’. In the absence of content, sarcasm and vituperation become the preferred templates
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There was one aspect of the Russian move which could well be part of a separate chess game. We do not know, and can examine the bare outlines that are visible. President Vladimir Putin sent a special message to Shehbaz Sharif describing Pakistan as Russia’s “key partner in South Asia” and the Muslim world and expressing his interest in a deeper political and economic relationship. Such phrases are not strewn about as seasonal goodwill. They are used with care. What could this mean? Moscow and Beijing are working towards a strategic axis in Asia aimed at limiting American influence. Is Pakistan, which has been a conduit for Western arms to Ukraine, being corkscrewed out of ambiguity into a specific camp?
The ripples of war can be subterranean. The war over Ukraine will change equations in its magnetic field. Prime Minister Modi has established the contours of a credible Indian position that seeks solutions through dialogue rather than war. But when storms spread havoc and change ground realities, there is merit in patience and wisdom in silence. This will be a year of strategic volatility. There will be greater clarity only when the storm dust begins to settle.
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