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Three thoughts on the Indo-Pak peace process

By Ahsan Butt
April 11th 2012

1. Yes, things are moving slowly. But that does not mean real, verifiable progress is not being made, particularly on trade and visas. If people think two years of stop-start talks are going to yield demonstrable results on territorial issues like Siachen or the big issues like Mumbai or Kashmir, they’re nuts (or they’ve been watching too much Hollywood). That’s not how things work.

The one point I would make on trade is that trade in and of itself is not likely to reduce conflict between India and Pakistan. The evidence on how trade affects conflict is mixed at best (though leans slightly in the expected direction of more trade = less conflict). However, one thing worth noting is that Pakistan, according to reports, plans on importing energy and fuel products from India. If that happens, well, I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a game-changer, but it would be a massive shift. The basic point would be that a more stable energy supply would (a) do wonders for the everyday life of the average Pakistani, and (b) make a massive difference to the industrialist class in Pakistan.

Now, point (b) matters because of two reasons. One, the industrialist class is important, and while not always getting their way on domestic policy, at least have a voice that is heard. Two, the industrialist class has a lot of cross-connections to the retired-khaki class (and if you don’t believe me, go to Karsaz or Defence Golf Club some time and see for yourself). The point would be that if you can make the case that warmer relations with India benefits that particular class, then you can drive a wedge within some of the anti-peace-movement sections of the public.

Stuff like this won’t happen overnight (or maybe at all), but I think it’s important to lay out the possibility at least.

2. Whether the policy pays long-term dividends or not, you’ve got to tip your hat to the PPP government and its foreign policy crew. Other than relations with Russia (which we actually have now), this has been their best achievement in foreign affairs to date. Think about the confines within which they have to work: they don’t actually have control over “high politics” issues such as Kashmir or Hafiz Saeed, so they can’t promise anything to the Indians there. And they can’t concede too much, lest the khakis and the Difa-e-Pakistan Council types get their knickers in a twist. They’re locked in a 3-player game (India, our civvies, our khakis) where they are, by far, the weakest player, have the least freedom of movement, and the most to lose. And yet, slowly but surely, they’ve worked their way to something approaching a set of modest achievements.

You had me at hello. Photo: AP

It bears noting that none of the other major parties has given the PPP the slightest problem when it comes to rapprochement with India. Nawaz Sharif, as he is wont to do, came out strongly in support of Zardari’s visit to India. No one else has really made a fuss either way. This is to be commended.

This relates to a point I’ve made before about the distortionary effects the khakis have on our domestic and foreign politics. Imagine a world where our military did not have the preferences or power that it does. Obviously we do not live in that world, but for the purposes of a physics-style thought experiment, just imagine it. Now, what do you think our foreign policy towards India would look like? Consider that none of our major parties really has a problem with India. In a world where only our political parties are responsible for policy, I can assure you said policy would look very different. (The contrast with our American policy, by the way, is quite instructive. In a world with no khakis, our American policy would be as, if not more, strident than it is today).

Now, it’s important to not go too far on this. A peace-process is a two way street and anti-settlement lobbies exist on both sides of the border, to be sure. Plus, even so-called low-hanging fruit are not easy to pick off.

But we can only control what we can control. And as I’ve argued before, the gains from a stable relationship accrue to Pakistan a lot more than they do to India. Put differently, it’s a bigger national interest for us than it is for them. The hope/plan would be that gains on smaller issues (visas, cricket, etc) engender levels of trust in a shadow-of-the-future sense that make bigger, more difficult issues slightly more doable.

3. Domestic politics, domestic politics, domestic politics. We’ve seen this movie before and it’s ended badly because of domestic politics. By all accounts, Musharraf and Manmohan were this close to something substantial on Kashmir. What happened? The Chief Justice, May 12, and the moment was lost. Nawaz Sharif and Vajpayee also made substantial progress. What happened? Uh, this.

With elections in Pakistan in about a year, and the Congress government in India getting hammered recently from a number of angles, the tenuousness of this process is made abundantly clear. Then there’s other unpredictable factors: another LeT attack in a major Indian city, complications in Afghanistan as a result of the American retreat, the possibility of a conflict in Iran spiraling out of control, and so on. These are things states and their representatives cannot predict.

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  1. Pingback: India and Pakistani Peace Process: “Stuff like this doesn’t happen overnight…” « Slugger O'Toole