Nirupama Subramanian /The Hindu
|All eyes are on today’s meeting of Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and Yousuf Raza Gilani to salvage the peace process.|
When the Indian and Pakistan Foreign Ministers spoke over the telephone two weeks ago just before their Foreign Secretaries met, Shah Mahmood Qureshi opened the conversation with his government’s trade policy that was announced a day earlier and contained several new measures to loosen up the trade regime with India, including an invitation to CNG bus manufacturers to set up plants in Pakistan.
At any other time, India might have had good words to say about the trade policy that expands the positive list of items for import from India and in which, for the first time, Pakistan signalled its willingness to put aside its “Kashmir first” slogan to solicit Indian investment. But Pranab Mukherjee’s tone was unusually curt. “I have not seen it,” he said, as India sought to convey its anger over the bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul, for which it holds Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence responsible.
A face-to-face meeting between the two Ministers on Thursday on the sidelines of the SAARC summit in Colombo does not appear to have melted the ice. Observers said Mr. Qureshi’s optimistic and even conciliatory tone after the meeting with his Indian counterpart — “a lot of steam has been let out of the pressure cooker and the dish we’re going to cook is going to be for the betterment of the region” — did not match the reserved mood on the Indian side. All eyes are now on a meeting of Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and Yousuf Raza Gilani on Saturday to “salvage” the peace process, which in the words of a diplomat is “definitely going downhill.”
While the Kabul attack has been the main reason for the diplomatic downturn in the peace process, Indian concerns over its relations with Pakistan have predated the deadly bombing. Several times over the last four months, India has conveyed its concerns over ceasefire violations on the Line of Control, and the sudden and quite public resurgence of banned militant groups in Pakistan to the new government in Islamabad through diplomatic channels. They were also communicated at the political level during the visit of Mr. Mukherjee to Islamabad in May.
For India, the Kabul bombing was confirmation that its fears were not misplaced. Pakistan has formally denied the Indian charge that the ISI was involved in the bombing, demanding evidence that New Delhi is said to have refused to share.
Diplomatic observers believe that the Gilani government will find it infinitely more difficult to deny the American evidence of an ISI hand in the attack, as reported in Friday’s New York Times. For now, Pakistan has retaliated by accusing India for the unrest in the tribal regions and in Balochistan. It is significant that these accusations are being made most stridently by Rehman Malik, who functions as Pakistan’s Interior Minister, and is close to the Pakistan People’s Party co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari, who is seen in Indian official circles as the keenest in the new set-up that India and Pakistan should move ahead in their bilateral relations.
“The first thing that the two Prime Ministers need to do is to clear the air. If there is any truth in the allegations, it is their primary responsibility to ensure that no one is allowed to undermine the peace process,” says Tanvir Ahmed Khan, a former Foreign Secretary, presently Director-General of the Institute of Strategic Studies, a think-tank affiliated to Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “The spirit has to be recaptured and reinforced to carry the conviction with the other side that something will be done.” According to him, it is also important that they discuss ways of injecting “a new momentum” in the peace process. “They should explore the possibility of moving forward on Siachen, on doing something concrete about Sir Creek.”
Equally important, Mr. Khan says, is to take up Mr. Zardari’s thoughts on expanding the bilateral economic relationship. But the Indian side has been categorical that “it cannot be business as usual if things go from bad to worse.” Officials say Mr. Mukherjee could not have made it any clearer than what he said on his arrival in Islamabad: “We approach the next round in a spirit of cooperation, trust and pragmatism. This is predicated on an atmosphere free from terrorism, violence and the threat of it.” In the circumstances, observers hope for the best but are not greatly optimistic that the meeting between Mr. Gilani and Dr. Singh will help to dissipate tensions enough to put the peace process back on track.
“The two Prime Ministers will meet, there will be the usual statements reaffirming the support for the peace process, but I don’t expect anything more than that will come out of the talks that can bring significant improvements to the atmosphere,” says Lt. Gen. (retd.) Talat Masood, a strong supporter of the India-Pakistan peace process.
According to him, a two-fold problem confronts the peace process that makes the coming months a “very crucial period for India-Pakistan relations:” a weak government in Pakistan that is unable to assert its political will for peace with India over the “establishment,” and the onset of election season in India during which no political party would want to be seen as being soft on terror, and consequently a government in New Delhi that would not want to appear conciliatory towards Pakistan after blaming it for something as big as the Kabul attack.
Weakness of Pakistani leadership
The weakness of the Pakistani leadership, Lt. Gen. Masood points out, was evident in the short-lived power struggle between the government and the ISI. The intelligence agency’s victory in the seven-hour power struggle confirmed the worst suspicions of many both in Pakistan and outside that the centre of power in the country lies not with the elected government but in other quarters, and that the transition to democracy has not changed that one bit. It also confirmed the widely view that this government must be either very incompetent or naïve to take on something as big as the ISI through a notification.
Indian officials who have been interacting with the new government in Pakistan too say the main worry now is that the new set-up is too weak and unstable to give any assurances that it can rein in “the elements” which have been chipping away at the peace process, whether it is on the LoC or the attack in Kabul.
Pakistani officials complain that the government’s new trade policy, with its expanded positive list of imports from India, has not been appreciated by New Delhi despite the massive hardline criticism the PPP-led government is facing for “trying to please India.” They list the “small but incremental steps” that Pakistan has taken since the new government came to power to improve ties, such as quietly allowing Indian films to be screened. They worry that “compulsions” in an election year are making India adopt an aggressive and unrelenting posture.
Some analysts, like the ISS’s Tanvir Khan, believe that an agreement on Sir Creek may help the Congress improve its electoral prospects and that pro-India moves may help the Pakistan government consolidate its position. But articulating the widespread belief in Pakistan — aside from the charges made by the Pakistan government — that India is behind the instability in the Balochistan province, Lt. Gen. Masood says the “establishments” on both sides have grabbed the agenda and are subverting the “genuine desire for peace that is felt by millions” in both countries. “As long as the government in Pakistan is not able to establish itself and reflect the will of the people for peace with India, and until such time as a new government takes charge in New Delhi and establishes the will of the Indian people for peace with Pakistan, I don’t see much improvement taking place on the India-Pakistan front,” says Lt. Gen. Masood. The need of the hour, he says, is to safeguard the ceasefire, which he describes as “the most valuable confidence-building measure” between the two countries. “If need be, even the two army chiefs must speak to each other on the phone,” he suggests.
The main ray of hope at this time is that the two sides are still talking, the result of diplomatic lessons learnt over the last four years of the peace process that it is better to keep channels of communication open than not. After the July 2006 bombings, the last major crisis in India-Pakistan relations, New Delhi cancelled some scheduled meetings but stopped short of calling off the composite dialogue process altogether. It took a meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Pervez Musharraf in Cuba to set the process back on track. Despite their fears, Pakistanis who desire peace and friendship with India are hoping that Prime Ministers Singh and Gilani will be able to recreate some of that Havana magic in Colombo.