Is India-Pakistan peace around?
Is the prospect of India-Pakistan peace becoming visible on the not too distant horizon? The hopeful query springs from sporadic signals, including some of international import, and a lot of guesswork, important enough to stick one’s neck out.
Indian and Pakistani prime ministers will be in Samarkand on Thursday to participate in a two-day summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation` (SCO). Uzbekistan, where Samarkand is, has a history of nudging India and Pakistan to terminate their mistrust. The 1965 Tashkent Agreement may not have been to Z.A. Bhutto’s liking but it did bring closure to a needless war between the two neighbours.
Equally important from the SCO’s perspective is the fact that India will be the host of the annual meet next year, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi, presumably, would want to be a successful bash.
Obstructing the potentially grand diplomatic dream is Delhi’s current patch of strained ties with China and the strategic doldrums swamping relations with Pakistan. Above all, the persistent US resolve to torpedo the SCO, of which China and Russia are the ideological lynchpins, not to speak of the summit in Samarkand, which is expected to produce an alternative narrative to the Ukraine conflict and other global issues, remains an ever-present concern.
Should things go well in Samarkand, an SCO summit in India could become a key element in Mr Modi’s third consecutive re-election bid in 2024. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, on his part, needs urgent relief from the combined effects of the political quagmire his ruling alliance finds itself in, deepened by the natural calamity striking the country in its most furious and devastating avatar in recent memory. Both pose a challenge to the tenuous alliance politically, which means more economic instability. Niggardly but optically handy moral support from the US with spare parts for F-16s could be a signal and a ploy ahead of the SCO meet.
The US is committed body and soul to Ukraine in its conflict with Russia, and is in a mental state that Jamey Falls would have identified with. Older former alumni would remember the school teacher at La Martiniere in Lucknow, chiefly the occasions when he was distracted from his lectures. “Give him what he wants, man. Just don’t disturb the class.” So went the legendary counsel from Mr Falls to the occasional horseplay on the back benches, mostly involving Anglo-Indian boys, which he found distracting.
The US in a similar manner is pressing everyone it can, to not disturb the class, shepherding everyone along to forgo their respective ongoing tiffs, for example, by notably bearing down on Serbs in the former Yugoslavia to ease up their standoff with ethnic rivals. The US quite possibly needs to see a suspension of sullen aloofness in South Asia too to get all sides to single-mindedly display empathy for its narrative of the trauma unleashed on Ukraine. Its public intent to weaken Russia or even destroy it economically seems to have recoiled, however, and is said to have only strengthened Vladimir Putin’s hold on the country.
Going by the prospects in view, the SCO summit could set the tone for the next steps in the European conflict that has brought the global economy to its knees. The India-Pakistan equation is integral to the peace agenda. In this regard the east-west lobbies would not find much to disagree on. Mr Modi would be closely watched for his interactions with Russian and Chinese presidents, who both will be encouraging if also watching his widely expected interaction with Pakistan’s prime minister.
Sprucing up Pakistan’s F-16 warplanes should struggle to chip away at the proximity Pakistan has acquired with the China-led club of Asian nations plus Russia.
The SCO was created to push back against precisely these moves from the west. Luckily both sides seem to have a need to bring the two countries close preferably (or cynically) without paring down their gargantuan inventories for military hardware. Some positive military disengagement and a promise of more, similar measures on the Sino-Indian border may have been planned to time with the Samarkand meet.
Yet who can deny the oversized fly in the ointment, when it comes to India-Pakistan rapprochement? If the horse befriends the grass, it could face starvation, an agreeable Urdu saying goes. Hatred for Pakistan has been an article of faith with Hindutva. Its cohorts in India’s ruling establishment would gasp without the putrid air of perpetual hostilities. Hindutva would starve without the required animus with Pakistan. On the other hand, Hindutva is not unknown for leaning on opportunism as a political tool. It can kill people for eating beef in one part of India, and not impose any such fiat in others, notably in Goa and Manipur.
Moreover, there is something about Nawaz Sharif and his party that Indian leaders find easier to work with. The Lahore summit and the unannounced gatecrashing by Modi at a Sharif event a few years ago bear witness. There is also considerable business interest in India in opening trade ties with Pakistan, which is seen as a conduit to Central Asian linkages. Remember that there’s always some mysterious businessman supposedly representing the government and fixing things for Delhi while being parked in a Lahore hotel. It was the late Dhirubhai Ambani who dispatched a message to Gen Pervez Musharraf, presumably through an important player in Washington D.C., to not mistreat Sharif.
Could the summit in Samarkand nudge both countries to resume their stalled dialogue once again? It’s pure speculation at present but not bereft of compelling logic. Reviving the Saarc meet that was due to be held in Pakistan before the advent of Mr Modi could become an attractive proposition from an economic perspective. For domestic politics too, divisive tactics are losing their currency. Peace with China and Pakistan could set the cat among the pigeons for a perennially underprepared opposition.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.