The peace puzzle

Modern day media is a strange animal. It is easily excited raises expectations quickly and then just as rapidly dashes them.The excitement focused on the meeting of the Pakistani and Indian prime ministers is a typical example. On the morning of the foreign secretaries’ meeting in Sharm el Sheikh there began a rush of phone calls that increased during the course of the day in which anchorpersons were eager to know what could be obtained from the meeting and why we couldn’t stop talking to India. The tone and tenor of the conversation was similar on the other side as well.

At this point in time Indo Pakistan ties can hope to make little movement. Given the highs and lows of our bilateral engagement there is little that the two establishments expect from each other. They can only try and convince the international community of their eagerness to have a debate and ensure the absence of military conflict.

Socio politically these are historic days for the subcontinent because the media one of the most effective tools for lobbying public support for policy is an active player in the foreign policymaking debate. The common media refrain in both countries is that their side must not talk to the other. The media is being exceptionally hostile and influencing public opinion and policymaking. Of course policymakers don’t admit that using the media is dangerous because after a certain point it becomes difficult to roll back public opinion.

Hence it is not surprising that earlier on Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh spilled the beans (regarding his official position) in front of the Pakistani president even before the press left the room. It was more than an error to put his cards on the table in the presence of both the president and the press. Manmohan Singh was probably not too excited about Zardari’s ability to comprehend the bottom line in terms of India’s desire to maintain friendly relations with Pakistan — the message was that Islamabad would have to eliminate terror and violence mechanisms operating on Pakistani territory before New Delhi considered talks with Pakistan.

In the past New Delhi had built up a rapport with the Nawaz Sharif and Pervez Musharraf governments to the extent that both sides had the confidence that they were about to improve jinxed India Pakistan relations for the better and that there would be no turning back. While the dispensations thought that they could carry their security establishments with them to improve relations with India by putting Kashmir on the backburner the Indian government was convinced that they had finally met Pakistani leaders who could command sufficient respect at home to convince the people and the military to give up on the Kashmir issue. Each time some crisis prevented a further buildup of relations.

India does not seem to have the same confidence in the present government. In fact in the days following the Mumbai terrorist attack last year many in New Delhi were not even sure who the real government in Pakistan was when it came to relations with India. Asif Zardari and his cabal seem to have promised things that they could not deliver later. Moreover while the president seems to talk about a composite dialogue especially trade with India the prime minister appears to follow the traditional line. Interestingly in the past Delhi was willing to talk about everything including bits of Kashmir. Today the political regime in Islamabad wants to talk about everything including trade with bits of discussion on Kashmir. The Indians are not too keen on this.

So Dr Singh wanted to let the fly on the wall know that lest the Pakistani leaders say something in public and raise expectations about normalcy in India Pakistan bilateral relations it must be put on record before the press that Delhi wouldn’t budge on a single point. Unfortunately the war on terror is an issue on which there is no ‘seeing eye to eye’ for the two sides. While India sees Pakistan as the source of all problems Islamabad believes that India along with its American partners is causing it all the pain. Of course no one mentions the fact that Islamabad should do more in terms of providing concrete evidence for India and America’s involvement in the violence in the northern areas.

At this juncture there are two realities. First it is very difficult to make any movement on any peace initiative because our agendas have become very divergent. The non state actors whom people would like to see evicted from the South Asian strategic scene have come to stay mainly due to the inability of the state actors to indulge in some out of the box thinking. Second diplomatic force and pressure might not help beyond a certain point. The two neighbouring states along with their friends and allies will have to sit together with greater patience than before to understand each other’s insecurities and concerns.

The reality is that we are in a historical ideological bind from which there is no getting out at least not for the present. Territorial disputes are a component of the real tension. Thus some form of territorial solution be it of the Siachen glacier issue or the Kashmir imbroglio is important as this would indicate the interest of policymakers on either side in evolving newer imagination about each other.

However what appears more likely at this stage is that India and Pakistan will muddle through the present times and continue with relations that are not normal until a point of greater destruction is reached. This would then teach us a lesson in peace. Or perhaps we would come to learn the worth of the latter through some miracle.

Seen from the lens of the media it is really a game of patiently sitting and watching events in the subcontinent. After all both states and the entire South Asian region can either sink or swim together.

Note: This article originally published here.