In recent weeks, there’s been an upsurge in bhai-bhai bonhomie sentiments from across the border with Pakistan. No less a person than the Army chief, Gen Ashfaq Parvez Khayani, spoke recently of the need for “peaceful coexistence” with India and pitched for a demilitarisation of the Siachen Glacier.
During a recent tour of Pakistan, sponsored by the Pakistani government, a group of Indian mediapersons were channelled a similar peaceable message: that after decades of hostility, wars and proxy wars, Pakistan wants “peace and normal relations” with India.
“We are willing to do business with India with a new mindset,” Pakistan’s foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar told Outlook.
And it isn’t just the civilian government led by the Pakistan People’s Party that is talking peace; even Army officials and even the shadowy ISI are articulating an “aman ki asha”. For once, the government, the army, the ISI and the civil society in Pakistan seem to be on the same page about seeking peace with its largest neighbour, notes one of the Indian media persons who made the crossing.
An ISI honcho even hosted a dinner for the Indian media delegation to smilingly demonstrate that he had “neither horns nor fangs”. The ISI, he claimed, had come to the realisation “that we cannot live in an environment of hostility with each other.”
Similarly, army officials and politicians plied impressionable Indian journalists with anecdotal evidence to establish Pakistan’s bona fides about its quest for peace. As part of this narrative, the blame for Pakistan’s Kargil treachery rested with Gen Pervez Musharraf alone, since it was his “pet project” that he had tried in vain to sell to Benazir Bhutto.
A top security official even lowered his guard sufficiently to acknowledge that the shadowy “Major Iqbal” (who was directing the operations of 26/11 accused David Headley, but whose existence Pakistan has thus far denied) had in fact retired from the Army and today “has nothing to do with us”.
Has the unthinkable happened? Is peace between India and Pakistan being given a chance?
There are many perfectly rational reasons that might account for this seeming “change of heart” in Pakistan. A covetous bloodlust over Kashmir and 60-plus years of manufactured hostility with India have only had the effect of driving Pakistan farther into the hell world of jihadi terror that today threatens to balkanise the benighted country.
And particularly after the 9/11 attacks, when the world was awakened to the perils of Af-Pak jihadi terror that India was experiencing a disproportionate share of until then, Pakistan’s alibi for spawning snakes in its backyard is well past its sell-by date. A crippled economy, and a popular bourgeoisie backlash against the Army-ISI establishment (particularly after the humiliation of last year, when US Navy seals sneaked in and killed Osama bin Laden from under the Army’s nose), have changed the subcontinental power dynamics.
As one Pakistan TV talk show host admitted to Outlook, “Being anti-India does not get us the eyeballs any longer.” Instead, Pakistanis are more preoccupied with their own internal political dynamics, and anger at American “interventionism” in the region tops the anti-India sentiment of the past. On the streets of Pakistan’s cities, people are less agitated about Kashmir, and rather more about the non-inclusion of Pakistani players in the IPL!
Commentators in India reason that the “danda-maar brigade” in India — to mean the hawks who argue against lowering our guard – is being churlish in not reciprocating this bhai-bhai sentiment.
“Indian diplomacy must not become a perpetual argument for estrangement,” argues Bharat Bhushan. “If the era of wars is not yet over, India should help end it.” He cites the experience of a retired Pakistani general who came to Delhi bearing a message of peace in September 2011, only to meet with stony cynicism from Indian policy hawks, to establish that Indian strategists are being cussed.
In Pakistan today, adds Bhushan, the constituency for peace with India seems to encompass not only ordinary folk but even the army. “This strategic shift is a tide which ought to be taken at the flood.”
But as strategic analysts point out, Pakistan’s peace overtures have to be seen from the perspective of the context in which they have been made. They are essentially an attempt to buy the failing Pakistani ‘deep state’ a bit of time to tide over the problems it faces on many fronts: tensions with the US, which have effectively cut off international assistance; a Taliban that is increasingly slipping out of its grip; worsening sectarian divide; and an economy in a shambles that has rendered mounting arms expenditure increasingly unsustainable.
Pakistan’s recent charm offensive, including from the ISI, must be seen in this context. There is, in addition, one additional strand of the back story to the peace offensive from Pakistan. As The Washington Post reported, the ISI’s new head, Lt Gen Zaheer ul-Islam, is taking a “proactive” approach to public relations to improve the international image of the much-maligned intelligence service.
In its excessive eagerness as part of this PR exercise, the ISI has even gone so far as to claim that it had helped US officials locate bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad – and deserved rather more credit than it had received. US officials have rubbished such claims.
Subcontinental peace is of course an objective worthy of pursuit, and the apparent yearning for it at the people’s level – on both sides of the Wagah border – certainly bodes well for both countries. But that quest should be carefully calibrated, and tempered by real-world experiences. Already, Laskhar-e-Taiba founder Hafiz Saeed, who enjoys state patronage in Pakistan, is looking to revive the Kashmir militancy after the US withdraws from Afghanistan.
As former RAW chief Vikram Sood observes, “kindness in international relations is not bestowed by one nation to another by surrendering strategic advantage… Let us not compound our folly by assuming that the other side is genuine when it masquerades magnanimity. Only verification and then trust will be proof of that and make for sound Indian statecraft.”
There’s a Buddhist parable that is particularly illustrative of the tortured relations between India and Pakistan. It narrates the story of a frog that, while waiting to swim across a river, is approached by a genial-looking scorpion. The scorpion too wants to get across, but cannot swim, and so requests the frog to carry him across. The frog is understandably wary that the scorpion might sting him. But the scorpion reassures the frog that he won't: after all, if he did sting the frog, they would both drown.
The frog mulls over this, applies game theory principles, and finds it a reasonable proposition. But halfway across the river, the scorpion delivers the frog a lethal sting. As they are both about to drown, the frog splutters: “But why?”
“I can’t help it,” the scorpion responds. “It’s in my essential nature to sting.”
The point for incorrigible peaceniks to ponder over is: can we trust the Pak army-ISI scorpion to overcome its "essential nature", and its compulsive habit of a lifetime?