Even as most commentators have been urging caution on Nawaz Sharif’s decision to open a new hand of friendship to India after his recent election, Shekhar Gupta makes a strong case in The Indian Express for India to rethink its old attitudes to Pakistan.
The main message in Gupta’s column titled Allah and Aam Aadmi is that Pakistan has changed – but we have not. He says Pakistan has gone through a “trial by fire”, and has weathered army coups, humiliation by America in the war on terror, economic decline, rising radicalism, et al. The recent election results, which followed five years of uninterrupted civilian rule, show that Pakistan has changed, and even the army dare not challenge this.
But Gupta believes that because Pakistan went through tribulations, we must somehow be willing to take larger risks than our neighbour. In fact, he goes to the other extreme and asks whether we must “continue to be ignorant and self-servingly patronising about it?”
If there is one thing Indians are not, it is ignorance about Pakistan’s intentions. We are the jokers who have repeatedly been taken in by peace talk – from Shimla to Lahore to Sharm el-Sheikh – in the hope that this time it’s different.
Not only this, Gupta seems to think we are the guys who’ve done wrong since Pakistan has changed. “The people of Pakistan, even its elites, were now willing to fight back to preserve an institution of democracy. The same people who, in the past, had accepted every coup as deja vu. It is this change that many Pakistan-watchers either missed or, particularly in India, are still not willing to accept. That is because we allow our contempt, fear and distrust of the Pakistani army to so cloud our judgment, we fail to see this fundamental, and virtuous, change.”
The truth, though, is the exact opposite: our policy vis-à-vis Pakistan is to hope that they will go away and leave us alone. But this they have never done – unless they want something from us. Right now, they know there are the global pariahs – and they need to latch on to us to improve their own global standing.
It’s also worth standing Gupta’s views on their head.
Let’s assume, for a moment, that Pakistan’s people have gone through a harrowing time and genuinely want peace with India. Let’s also assume that Nawaz Sharif, despite question-marks over his role on Kargil, genuinely wants a turnaround in relationship. And the army will let him.
None of the above three propositions can be taken for granted, but even if you accept them as true, there is no reason why we should lower our guard at all.
Gupta is surely dead wrong on this assertion: “Unfortunately, over the years (post-Sharm el-Sheikh, let's say), our view of Pakistan has become re-militarised as its own society's has become de-militarised.”
There is not one ounce of truth in this – unless he is talking about rabid TV anchors. Where has our view on Pakistan re-militarised when we have done nothing but offer olive branches all the time, from Sharm al-Sheikh to MFN status to easy visa regimes (the last initiative being halted by the incident of head-cutting at the LOC)?
It is in this context that the Prime Minister must view Nawaz Sharif’s invitation to attend his swearing-in.
It is worth recalling another impromptu invitation to Atal Behari Vajpayee in February 1999 to visit Lahore by AC bus. The invitation, mentioned in an interview to Shekhar Gupta, quoted Sharif as calling Vajpayee “an extremely decent man”.
Sharif also said that if Vajpayee took the inaugural bus service from Delhi to Lahore, he would be received with hospitality ''so great that people will not forget it for a long time.'' He added, for good measure: ''I will even be happy to go back with him. We will solve 50 percent of our problems, make 50 percent progress on all issues, on our way.”
Shekhar Gupta must be hoping that the derailed friendship – resulting from Pakistan’s perfidy in Kargil - of which he was the go-between in 1999 will now find fruition with Sharif’s return.
But there is no need to rush to revise our judgments on Pakistan just yet. And certainly we have no reason to burden ourselves with guilt for being suspicious of Pakistan’s intentions.
When it comes to Pakistan’s intentions, given our history, the proof of the pudding is always in the eating. While every olive branch should be considered on its own merits, we need to also check them for hidden thorns.
There is also the other reality: whenever we have shown ourselves to be over-eager for peace, we have ended up in war.We have not had war only when we were ready for it.
Pakistan, it seems, always misreads our peaceful intentions. It is time they did some running to convince us about peace.