Hunger in neighbourhood: Can India afford to be silent when Pakistan is starving?

Maybe, it is time, India gives another chance to the age-old dictum of ‘trust but verify’ and have no optimism, but not pessimism, either – all of it with abundant caution, all the same!

N Sathiya Moorthy February 03, 2023 17:37:51 IST
Hunger in neighbourhood: Can India afford to be silent when Pakistan is starving?

Pakistan's economy is teetering on the edge, with the government dependent on a lifeline cash injection from an emergency IMF visit this week to avoid a Sri Lanka-style default. AFP

When the Track-II India-Pakistan dialogue failed to produce results – that is the two sides accepting the Line of Control (LoC) as ‘International Border’ (IB), the reports attributed this to the Vajpayee government’s ‘inability’ to offer something substantial for President Pervez Musharraf to market the proposals to an ever-restless population in return for a clamp-down on cross-border terrorism and the ISI. Today, when Pakistan is in an economic doldrum after Sri Lanka in South Asia, with some more possible to follow, economic aid could be that something that was in the mind of the two negotiators and the governments that were bagging them.

At best, the negotiators possibly touched upon the utopian reality of a ‘shared prosperity’ in the future, but there was nothing tangible on hand, as neither side had visualised the current reality of the Pakistani economy tumbling down, the nation going without fuel, hence power and transportation, and of course imported foodstuff, and the Pakistani rupee turning a little better than waste-paper, given the exchange rates against major global currencies, starting with the dollar.

A failed Pakistan, is it good or bad for India? In the immediate, the average Indian perception would be to let Pakistan sink into the morass of its own making, never ever to raise its hand or head again – certainly against India and in military or terrorist terms. There is empirical evidence to prove that historical animosity against India, bordering on abject hatred, led to avoidable wars that it lost every time it triggered and fought them.

Even without it, war in modern times does not cause reparations to be paid by the loser to the victor. The reparations that Germany was forced to paid at the end of the First World War in the previous century, the Treaty of Versailles, as called, was behind the Second World War, as a humiliated nation readily fell for the nationalist fervour that Adolf Hitler could trigger in unending waves- – until it was all doom and nothing else left for the nation.

Yet, today, the very same Germany that lost the two Great Wars in the previous century has recouped much of the economic losses, and is slowly but surely inching towards the global centre-stage. It is already back in the European centre-stage, of course, with France silently contesting and openly cooperating, to try and check the global hegemony from across the Atlantic, as is being practised by the US. But not for some more time after the commencement of the Ukraine War, nearer home.

Raison d’etre, no more

So, too, Pakistan can revive itself in time, but if and only if it looks more and more inward, and puts India adversity in the back-burner, never ever to pick it back whenever the domestic political situation compelled the rulers to do so. This has been their practice and the whole nation is paying for it, and will continue to pay even a higher price, if they continue on the same track, now or later.

For that to happen, Islamabad should rule the nation, not Rawalpindi, either directly or through political proxies, one after the other. Unless that becomes clear, and they too make it clear to the outside world, there is little hope for Pakistan, through the short, middle and long terms. Thankfully, this time round, there is no dry powder left in their guns to fire at India, for a long time.

For Pakistan to revive its economy, it is not enough for the nation and the government to redraw their economic policies, as neighbouring India too did in the early nineties. Instead, Pakistan as a nation, government and people or peoples should decide not to make India the raison d’etre of their daily and national existence. It can happen only under a new political leadership, unconnected to and disconnected from the past, and a military doctrine that has to be rewritten from the very first word.

It may not happen now, but the nation has to consciously make the baby steps towards changing its political, foreign and defence policies, thinking and being, here and now. The choice is theirs, and it is difficult for the current generation at the helm, to think differently from what has been fed into their being, all through the nation’s 75 years of existence.

Exploiting a weak moment

There are Indians, both common men and experts alike, who strongly feel that this is the time for India to hit at them where it hurts the most, the national pride, that is. They cite the end of Karna in the Mahabharat, to argue how even God has exploited the weak moment in his warrior’s life, to send him to, where else but the heaven. They also quote contemporary and past military texts to support their argument, and they are serious about it.

The implied idea is for India to military attack Pakistan and expose and exploit the chinks in their political and military armour that have together produced the current economic predicament, to put it mildly. Some keep going to their ideological belief in ‘re-uniting’ what in their political philosophy is ‘Akhand Bharat’.

Thankfully, the BJP-led government at the Centre seems to have understood the complications, leave alone the possibilities, in such a belief. In the Opposition, leaders of the BJP and their ideological RSS parent, especially, used to ridicule the government of the day, how they could not enforce law and order, and put down militancy / terrorism in the ‘60X40 Kashmir Valley’.

Though terrorism has come down substantially, they however seem to have understood the inherent difficulties in sustaining the momentum – and over a long period, and after withdrawing the substantial number of security forces deployed in the Valley. No one is talking any more about ‘Akhand Bharat’, as they also seem to have understood the consequences of the multiplier effect it would have on the number of Muslims in the ‘new country’, the very same people they love to hate but would have to have more of them.

Going by the 2021 Census figures there would nearly be 2,500,00,000 more Muslims than the current figure of 1,500,00,000. The area of that country, with its own internal socio-political contradictions and widening rich-poor and urban-rural divide, that too in this worsening economic situation, too would have expanded so much that it would be an internal security nightmare even if the local population is going to cooperate. And they are not going to cooperate, full-stop.

Shifting the border and more

Any Indian victory in military terms against an economically weaker Pakistan would be a nightmare precisely for this reason, there is more to follow. First and foremost, even as many Indians want to believe that the nation will soon become the world’s third largest economy from being the fifth just now, and the latter too is not a small feat, all this is only in current terms and as per the existing situation.

Any addition to the nation’s population or developmental and security commitment could turn India’s geo-economic, followed by geo-political and geo-strategic ambitions topsy turvy. No one in Delhi may want such a situation, the institutional India having found the ‘Kashmir situation’ itself too difficult and even longer to handle. India is not the European Union (EU), where existing and prosperous member-nations shared the burden of uplifting the erstwhile East European nations – and are still only halfway through it, if at all. Else, many of them would not have signed up for China’s BRI that was packaged as a ‘dreamland development’ wonder.

Instead, a restless Pakistan, whether part of India or not, could make the long border porous and inviting. The nation has the experience of the Bangladesh and Sri Lankan Tamil refugees risking their lives to seek guarantees for their life and limbs in India, when their nation was in the midst of a troubled phase. If the Pakistani economy worsens, there could be such ‘economic refugees’ who may try and cross over into what we tom-tom as a ‘prosperous’ India. The Indian experience with those refugees is not something that New Delhi would want to repeat, especially in the case of ever-adversarial Pakistan.

The previous generation of Pakistanis have had the experience of ‘Partition exodus’, for their next two, to try and repeat the feat – but without mutual blood-letting. India cannot deploy its armed forces excessively to stop them on their way and force them back without becoming the recipient of international approbation on human rights issues, real and imaginary, as is convenient to the political West and the economic North.

Still, imagine a situation where India’s borders are shifted to what is now the Af-Pak border. Does anyone in the country want it that way? Of those that speak of Gandhari, the mother of the Kauravas, and their maternal uncle Shakuni, again from the Mahabharat, speak of present-day Afghanistan, too, being a part of ancient India, they need also speak up in terms of contemporary realities.

If they say that Pakistan is impossible to rule, the Afghans take pride in reiterating that theirs is a nation that they too have not managed to rule, and how no ‘foreigner’ had ever ruled – and they are spot on. Indian strategic planners would rue the day if that were to happen. So, barring the insane, no strategic policy-maker is going to recommend or support such a course.

Externalising internal agenda

In recent days and weeks, an increasing number of media analyses in Pakistan have been writing about the glory that is India, its growth and economic prosperity, especially. It has everything to do with India and Indians, when they change policies and how they change them, and for the better. That is not the case with Pakistan or any of the other South Asian neighbours of India.

Their problem suffers primarily from perceptions and comparisons. It is more so with Pakistan, where they began the comparison even before Zulfikhar Ali Bhutto, as Foreign Minister, told the UN, how people would even eat grass to make the ‘bomb’. This comparison, which was born out of hatred that has no real justification even in Partition history, and is also not borne out by comparative sizes of their economies, populations (which has formed a ready market, more so in the reforms era), and sheer geographical areas.

For the past decade or two, there are those in India who too similarly compared India with China on everything. Yes, the two nations are historic adversities, and maybe India even has a military score to settle, after the 1962 debacle. But to use it as a yardstick to make comparisons in every sphere, be it economy or military is not just on – maybe, the latter makes sense in the context of the strained borders, especially after Doklam and Galwan, but it should stop there.

Else, India and Indian might end up committing the same blunder as ‘externalising’ the nation’s internal agenda, which should centre on socio-economy, and not of foreign and defence policies, per se. It is unfortunately happening already -– and there is the real possibility of India getting stuck there, unknowingly and for good, unless the nation tempers its anger with realism and patriotism with pragmatism. It is another matter if someone is going to provoke you or attack you.

Trust but verify

In short, India needs to be open about the economic crisis unfolding in Pakistan, good and fast. It should evaluate the situation based not on emotions, either of anger or sympathy, but in a realistic context. Experience has shown that Pakistan cannot be trusted, yet, the government can – and will have to – consider the options, possibilities, if it becomes necessary to intervene in a positive way and in economic terms, as happened in the case of Sri Lanka, for instance.

What can and what should India do is for the government to decide, even when the decision is to ‘reach out to the people’ of Pakistan. This is precisely what New Delhi has been doing ever since Sri Lanka, suffered an economic jolt, independent of the policy-makers perception of the Colombo rulers’ attitude towards India, and their inevitable mental comparison of the same vis a vis China.

The advantage, if any, is this: Can India woo Pakistan, too, from the vice grip of China, even to the middle-path? If so, how and how much? Again, as the recent Sri Lankan experience has shown, India’s unstinted support and unsought-for- assistance at times, could not stop Sri Lanka from letting the Chinese spy-vessel, ‘Yuan Wang 5’ to be berthed in the China-controlled Hambantota Port. Supposedly for ‘re-stocking’. India too has moved on, as EAM Jaishankar’s recent visit to Colombo showed.

Then, there is the near-eternity of ISI-sponsored cross-border terrorism, which has only reduced and not stopped in recent months. Suddenly, Pakistan ministers, starting with Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, have been making India-friendly noises. However, they do not seem to have the courage to accept ‘moral defeat’ lest their broken throne should become shakier than ever, courtesy their own armed forces and the ISI, which has become a deeper state within a deep state.

One Pakistan minister even compared the way the Afghan Taliban recently bombed a Peshawar mosque during prayer time, in which 100 people were killed –with the situation with India, where it has not happened. The comparison was a veiled admission of guilt that Pakistan was behind all those terror attacks in India, first in Punjab and now in Kashmir, for the past several decades.

Maybe, India can begin by dusting the Vajpayee-Advani era demand for handing over those 21 terrorists wanted in India, to stand trial in Indian courts. Maybe, some of them are dead and others may have to be added. An updated list, done publicly or otherwise, and Pakistan’s willingness, or even helplessness, should be the starting point for assessing if Pakistan has changed, and is willing to change even more, and is ready to move forward in that direction, and only in that direction.

India cannot stay away or silent when Pakistan is starving and there is the real threat of a break-up more than any time in the past, given the inherent contradictions that were never ever cemented, but only glossed over in the altar of anti-India rhetoric and action. Maybe, it is time, India gives another chance to the age-old dictum of ‘trust but verify’ and have no optimism, but not pessimism, either – all of it with abundant caution, all the same!

The writer is a Chennai-based policy analyst & political commentator. Views expressed are personal.

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