Nawaz Sharif is not Gorbachev, but is ‘arrest’ of Azhar Masood a hint of perestroika in Pakistan?

It is too early to read much into it. It might look cosmetic and even seem more than a little suspicious, but Pakistan’s decision to acknowledge and act upon India’s claims against Maulana Masood Azhar and his terror factory, the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), suggests the beginning of a new thinking in Pakistan. Though it is unlikely to see a reversing of hostilities in a hurry, the thinking at the highest levels of the Indian government is that the Pakistani dispensation is at least willing to pause on the pointless trajectory of perpetual enmity with India.

As news of the Pakistani security forces launching action against those involved in the attack on Pathankot Air Force Station came in, the cynicism in the Indian establishment gave way to hope and optimism about Pakistan’s approach. Given the long history of distrust and perceived betrayal by both the sides, skepticism still persists but with an outer coating of hope that this will lead to a new trend of reduced hostilities between the two nuclear powers of South Asia, often described as the “most dangerous place on the planet” by western think tanks and administrations.

JeM Maulana Masood Azhar. Reuters

JeM Maulana Masood Azhar. Reuters

Will Pakistan completely change its anti-India policies and reconcile with the concept of a friendly neighbour? The answer to this question is certainly not easy to provide. Yet the Indian government has been pinning hopes on the possibility of Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif steering his country to a new course like Mikhail Gorbachev had done in the erstwhile USSR.

There are many similarities between Pakistan and the former USSR. Decades of hostilities with the USA and the rest of the western nations had driven the USSR to divert its resources to building up arsenals and creating an implosive economic situation. Similarly, Pakistan’s military-industry complex is believed to be eating up all its resources at the expense of its people’s welfare. Decades of anti-India policies and the adherence to General Zia-Ul-Haq’s doctrine of “bleeding India by a thousand cuts” have done equal if not more harm to Pakistan than India.

In the last two decades and more, as India’s economy vaulted into the trillions, at one point even pushing double-digit annual growth, Pakistan’s economy, which was in far better shape than India’s, has collapsed. Additionally, it has come to be known across the globe as a “rogue state” where terrorism is nurtured and bred.

The series of interactions that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has had with his Pakistani counterpart were guided more by the imperatives of economics more than politics. For instance, the win-win situation of a peaceful, prosperous and terror-free South Asia would give fillip to economic growth of Pakistan in a more substantial way than India. This was the essence of the message that Modi carried to Lahore on Christmas day when he told the Sharif brothers, in the solitary confines of their Raiwind palace:“Jung bahut karli. Jung karke kya paya, na zameen mili na jannat paya (What has war yielded, neither land nor heaven).”

The Sharif brothers (PM Nawaz and Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz) seemed to have understood the implicit message of Modi’s couplet which was delivered in the wider context of the troubled region.

On his part Modi had also realised the limitations and dilemmas of the perpetual conflict that exists between Pakistan’s political leadership and its ISI-military establishment. In Ufa where Modi and Sharif held a successful meeting, the gains were frittered away following chest-thumping by the BJP over the exclusion of Jammu and Kashmir from the agenda of the proposed composite dialogue. Sharif found himself cornered on the issue in Pakistan and retracted.

That is why Modi was overly cautious even after the extreme, if expected, provocation of an across-the-border attack by the Jaish on the forward base in Pathankot. While the prime minister himself came up with a measured reaction limited mostly to the operational response to the attack, specific instructions went out from a top PMO official to the spokespersons of the ministries of home, external affairs and defence to “not push Pakistan to the wall” with the usual babble of belligerence. The government’s line of thinking was also explained to top leadership of the BJP which usually breaths fire and brimstones when it deals with Pakistan. It is indeed next to impossible to restrain the motor mouths of the Sangh Parivar – that too after an attack on the country’s forward airbase – but even that was achieved.

Prime Minister Modi, sources said, was acutely aware that one act of indiscretion would evaporate the goodwill and trust generated by his Lahore visit and rapport with Nawaz Sharif. Though the Pathankot attack had substantially damaged the newfound bonhomie, Modi relied on the goodwill overhang to give peace a chance. And he held his cards close.

Knowing, through diplomatic channels, that something was different this time round in the manner the Pakistan government-Army-ISI triumvirate was responding to the Pathankot attack – a confirmation that his studied patience and restraint were having the intended effect – Modi not only persuaded his confidants to avoid jingoistic rhetoric barring one jarring note from Union Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, he managed to present a coherent line of thinking in the government and the BJP. At the top level of the government, Home Minister Rajnath Singh was persuaded to give up his anti-Pakistan stance. After a meeting with External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, whose tour to Islamabad led to the revival of the hope that talks would resume, Singh came up with a muted “we must not distrust Pakistan” statement that was in contrast to his usual belligerent rhetoric of giving a “befitting reply (muhtod jawab)” to Pakistan on every incident of incursion and firing from across the border.

What appears to be a significant departure from the past is the fact that for the first time India-Pakistan talks are completely insulated from the influence of and the hype in the media. “We must not let the media hijack the agenda and derail the process,” a senior bureaucrat who has been in the thick of things right from Ufa to Islamabad to Lahore, told me the other day. “That’s the precise reason why, to eliminate the scope for misinterpretations, the foreign secretaries of both the countries read out a joint statement at the insistence of Prime Minister Modi, in Ufa,” he said. But that didn’t help. BJP spokespersons gloated over the non-inclusion of J&K. It was not long before the Indian media took over and proclaimed ‘victory’ leading to major embarrassment for Nawaz Sharif and Pakistan's subsequent retraction.

There is little doubt that the manner in which the Pakistan government showed its inclination to act against those who, from its soil, planned and carried out the Pathankot attacks, has generated optimism in India. The detention of Azhar and his associates may just be a small beginning in the right direction. It is not without risks to Pakistan. According to the Indian Express here’s what Azhar wrote on Jaish’s online mouthpiece the Al Qalam, even as the Pakistani security agencies were closing in on his terror empire last evening: “There is a lot of noise coming from India regarding us – arrest, kill, arrest, kill – and here our rulers are in anguish because, perhaps, we have disturbed their intimacy and friendship (because) they want that on the day of judgment, they should stand as friends of Modi and Vajpayee.”

Of course, the impact of intense international pressure on Pakistan to recalibrate friendly-terror foreign policy doctrine cannot be underestimated. Even yesterday Pakistan figured prominently in President Obama’s last State of the Union Address. “Both al-Qaeda and now ISIL pose a direct threat to our people, because in today's world, even a handful of terrorists who place no value on human life, including their own, can do a lot of damage….but it can't stop there. For, even without ISIL, instability will continue for decades in many parts of the world in the Middle East, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in parts of Central America, Africa and Asia. Some of these places may become safe havens for new terrorist networks,” he said.

This time round there is some confidence at the highest levels of the Modi government that this could be the beginning of change in Pakistan. Even if it can’t change as fundamentally as Gorbachev’s perestroika changed the USSR, it could well be the slit in the door that doves in India and Pakistan have been waiting for. The proof that this is an opening, however small, is in this little publicised fact: The action against JeM seems to have the backing of ISI and the Army. To wit, Sharif and his Army Chief General Raheel Sharif met no less than three times in the past week that led to the crackdown on Jaish.

And yet, the history of India-Pakistan hostilities being such as it is, a standard disclaimer is warranted as a suffix to any analysis of the relations between the two countries. It does not take a lot or very long to revert to old positions. Pakistan is especially nimble-footed in reversing positions. The past is full of such experiences.

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Updated Date: Jan 14, 2016 17:06:19 IST

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