Indian foreign secretary Nirupama Rao has said some promising things for the troubled India-Pakistan equation. Her first statement was that perhaps it was wrong on the part of India to stop talking to Pakistan after the 2008 Mumbai attack; her second statement said that Pakistan’s attitude had changed towards terrorism and therefore there were better prospects for an India-Pakistan normalisation these days, represented by uninterrupted bilateral talks on outstanding issues.
There was undue triumphalism in the Pakistani press on Ms Rao’s owning up to India’s mistake in her first statement. The correct reaction would have been to say that her statement had improved the outlook for a better regional security environment. There is no doubt that there is international pressure on both India and Pakistan to start talking. Furthermore, signals are also being given to India to abandon its policy of linking all progress in talks to the resolution of the Mumbai attack case in Pakistan against several Lashkar-e-Taiba members. It was wrong to interpret Ms Rao’s observation as a kind of Indian admission of defeat.
Ms Rao is talking frankly because she has come to the end of her tenure as secretary for external affairs of India. She may want to improve her prospects as Indian ambassador to the United States where she might be called upon to look at Pakistan more realistically than she was at New Delhi, responding to public rage in the post-Mumbai days. It is also possible that privately she preferred a softer approach to Pakistan as foreign secretary than the consensus inside the Indian establishment allowed. We know that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh definitely wanted a similar approach to Pakistan, meaning that Ms Rao was not alone in her views.
Her second statement, given on a TV show, is more detailed and therefore significant. She thinks that “the prism through which Pakistan sees the issue of terrorism has definitely been altered” and this was her conclusion after the last secretary-level talks she attended in Islamabad. What exactly persuaded her to change her mind? This observation: “I think when they [Pakistan] speak of the fact that non-state elements in this relationship need to be tackled, that we must look at safe havens and sanctuaries, that we must look at fake currency, we must look at all the aspects that are concerned with the business of terror, I think that is a concrete development”.
There could be extra-regional factors of persuasion on both countries behind these subtle reactions. And this persuasion is not coming only from the US but also from the UK and the European Union. Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir — heretofore known as a hawk closely aligned with the military that runs Pakistan’s India policy — has mellowed if he did say that terrorism had to be tackled. This mellowness is owed to international persuasion and the relentless decay of the old policy applied to the problem of terrorism. Some of this persuasion is also managed indirectly through states that Pakistan counts as its ‘all-weather’ friends. Ms Rao ended up saying significantly: “But let me say that the fact that we are discussing the threat, the scourge, the evil of terrorism and the fact that it has ramifications that extend into the entire region, I think is a development we must take note of”.
Pakistan and the US are at a crossroads of sorts and if no flexibility is shown by both sides, a new round of tension is bound to start with Pakistan facing more than just one nutcracker situation that national ghairat alone cannot fight. The national economy is winding down fast and political discord is being added to terrorism, crime and movements of insurgency. Pakistan needs to act in accordance with its agreed ‘national interest’, which is definitely not providing or blinking safe havens — said to be 150 — to gangs who strike across Pakistan’s frontiers. More than that, Pakistan needs to move forward on the opening of free trade and trade routes with India; but that, too, will require pacification of territories ceded to the terrorists inside Pakistan.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 5th, 2011.
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