Manmohan Singh’s peace gamble: vision confronts reality

By Amulya Ganguli, IANS,

Considering the ease with which anti-Pakistani feelings can be ratcheted up in India by the opposition parties and sections of the media, it takes a great deal of courage to try to reduce tension and move towards peace. In this respect, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s initiatives in Sharm-el-Sheikh were a bolder venture than even Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s bus journey to Lahore a decade ago.

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The boldness was all the greater because the Sharm-el-Sheikh meeting was preceded by 26/11 whereas Vajpayee’s excursion was followed by the Kargil conflict, the Kandahar hijacking and the attack on parliament. Had it been the other way round, Vajpayee would not have travelled to Lahore at all.

Yet, Manmohan Singh praised his predecessor’s overtures to a duplicitous neighbour during his address to parliament. The reason was that Vajpayee had to overcome the strong lobby of Pakistan-baiters in his own Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and in the RSS-led Sangh Parivar, a member of which advised him to go to Lahore in a tank and not in a bus.

The same group in the BJP was active yet again in parliament with a former minister, Yashwant Sinha, even accusing Manmohan Singh of walking over to the Pakistani side.

At the end of the parliamentary debate, however, the reference to Balochistan in the Sharm-el-Sheikh document remained the only point which gave the BJP some solace. Otherwise, Manmohan Singh’s reiteration that a return to the negotiating table was not possible till Pakistan acted against its supposedly “non-state” terrorists left the opposition without any substantial talking point.

In contrast to the BJP’s politically-motivated obduracy, what was evident was the reasonableness of Manmohan Singh’s stand that, first, war was not an option and, second, that channels of communication could not be shut down even if the interlocutor was perceived to be mendacious.

Hence the prime minister’s reference to Ronald Reagan’s “trust, but verify” directive in the context of the American peace initiatives with the Soviet Union. Arguably, the Indian efforts to reach an understanding with Pakistan face even greater obstacles than the Reagan-Gorbachev dialogue.

The reason is that the US knew who it was dealing with in Moscow. India, however, cannot be sure whether President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani are really calling the shots in Islamabad, and not army chief General Pervez Ashfaq Kayani.

India cannot forget that even as Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif were meeting in Lahore, then Pakistani army chief Gen Pervez Musharraf was preparing for his Kargil misadventure.

Similarly, Kayani’s recent comment that the army will bring the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) under “control” if India stopped “messing around” in Balochistan indicates that the links between the military and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) with the LeT remain intact.

The same impression is conveyed by Pakistani objections to the proposed American “surge” in the anti-Taliban operations in Afghanistan since this can lead to the influx of terrorists into Balochistan and elsewhere in Pakistan. Their arrival will compound the situation for the army because it is unwilling to move its troops from the Indian border to fight the internal menace.

It is this suspicion of dualism which probably made Manmohan Singh express the hope that the “leadership in Pakistan will have the courage to defeat those who want to destroy peace”. His reference may not have been only to the terrorists but also to their backers in the military and ISI.

At the same time, the resultant uncertainty about whether it is worthwhile to negotiate with those who do not have real authority in Pakistan explains the prime minister’s remark that while he shares Vajpayee’s “vision”, he also feels “his frustration in dealing with Pakistan”.

Although this is the fundamental difficulty of interacting with Pakistan, it is a point not raised by parties like the BJP because it will dilute their criticism of the government and the prime minister’s supposed weakness, on which it is again focussing even though this line of attack was of no help to it in the elections.

If, on his part, Manmohan Singh was able to dispel much of the misgivings about delinking acts of terrorism from resumption of the dialogue, this could not be said about the reference to Balochistan in the document even if it was due to bad drafting, as Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon conceded.

But if Pakistan believes that allegations of Indian intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing’s (RAW) involvement in Balochistan will balance the Indian charges against ISI, it is still a kind of self-goal for Islamabad because it underlines the prevalence of serious unrest in a large province a la the former East Pakistan before 1971.

Whether RAW is funneling funds to the Balochistan Liberation Army or not, as a well-known Pakistani television journalist, Hamid Mir, has mentioned in a recent article, Baloch separatism is another indication of Pakistan’s fragility, which is also exemplified by the continuing influence of the Islamic fundamentalists in the north-west.

India’s willingness, therefore, to talk to Pakistan if it can rein in terrorism not only entails propping up the somewhat more dependable civilian leadership vis-�-vis the military and ISI for the sake of peace but also to ensure that the latter’s flirting with religious extremists does not further destabilise the failing state.

(01-08-2009 – Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at [email protected])