The Indian president’s comment on the eve of his country’s Republic Day that while India was “always ready to offer a hand in the hope of friendship … this should not be taken for granted”, could not but cause disappointment and surprise in Pakistan.
Relations between the two South Asian neighbours have never been free of mutual doubts and misgivings, even in the best of times. They are also accident prone and, therefore, need to be handled with care and caution, which explains why even stray incidents can derail well-laid plans for normalisation.
Admittedly, the LoC had been generally quiet for nearly a decade, but it is not unusual for an incident to raise the political temperature. But what took observers by surprise was the failure of local commanders to settle what was originally a minor difference that led to shelling and death on both sides. The Indian media, too, was not helpful, ignoring important facts and focusing on preconceived notions. A couple of journalists did, however, do the honourable thing by admitting that even the suspected beheading of an Indian soldier, while definitely reprehensible, was not a unique incident as India itself had perpetrated similar acts. But worse was to follow, when this led to threats and warnings from senior Indian military officials, who have been demonstrating increasing interest in relations with Pakistan. Soon, however, political leaders, too, joined in the fray with public denunciations, which is when the Pakistanis woke up to this worrying development.
After all, there is no denying that there currently exists a consensus in Pakistan that opposes hostility towards India and favours improved relations with it. This view is shared by the civil and military leadership, as well as the opposition parties, the media and civil society. Developments over the past years had led many Pakistanis, especially those genuinely desirous of cordial and cooperative ties, to believe that relations between the two countries were finally moving in the right direction.
Consequently, Pakistanis could reach few truly convincing explanations for Indian President Pranab Mukherjee’s remark, or for the earlier harsh comments by the usually unflappable Manmohan Singh and the staid Mrs Gandhi. One can, therefore, do no more than speculate as to why sober sentiments were abandoned and the decision taken to whip up national passions.
True, the Manmohan Singh government appears to have lost its national moorings; some even claim that it is merely drifting, marking time before it enters the election fray under the recently anointed leadership of Rahul Gandhi. Elections will be fought on domestic issues and yet there is the lurking fear that relations with Pakistan, on which there is no evidence of a national consensus, could become an election issue. There appears little recognition in India either, that the peace process has so far focused on issues of primary interest to India, especially as the talks have remained confined to trade, terrorism and people-to-people contacts. Pakistan has conceded much on these issues in the expectation of reciprocal gestures in other areas but there is no sign of those, so far. In fact, most analysts are convinced that sounding tough on Pakistan rather than appearing conciliatory is a safer strategy, particularly so as not to provide fodder to the BJP anti-Pakistan mills.
It is somewhat ironic that the positive development of Pakistan’s recognition of the threat that domestic extremism and terrorism poses to the country’s security, amidst signs of improvement in Pakistan’s relations with the US, especially in the context of the role that Islamabad could play in the reconciliation process in Afghanistan, should be cited by Indian commentators to explain what is described as India’s discomfiture at Pakistan’s raised profile. One can only hope this is not true because the normalisation process can become meaningful and durable only when it is negotiated with a confident, democratic Pakistan and is based on a genuine recognition of the need to resolve all our differences, in a spirit of mutual accommodation.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 30th, 2013.