The visit of Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari to India originally meant as a pilgrimage to the venerated shrine of Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer was converted into a high profile event with a lunch organised in his honour by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Such informal visits have always been helpful, permitting the leaders of both sides to reaffirm their progressive vision of the bilateral relationship. This event provides an opportunity to assess where relations now are and how they are may develop. After the hiatus caused by the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008, the peace process and dialogue was put back on track last year with measured expectations.
Pakistan, faced with continuing turmoil in Afghanistan and an increasingly stressful relationship with America, made space for itself by continuing its policy of engagement with India. In a major reversal of a six-decade policy, it decided to open trade with India despite worries that its industries would suffer. To maintain public support for this move towards India the government expects some forward movement finally from the Indian side on the major issues continuing to bedevil the two countries — the long standing Kashmir dispute, the Siachen Glacier, the Sir Creek maritime boundary and the flow of rivers into Pakistan from India, subject to the Indus Waters Treaty.
Four dimensions have to be taken into account. First, of the process; second, which disputes are closer to resolution; third, the impact of the trade opening; and fourth, each country’s objectives. The structured composite dialogue process is back in place. But India has been pressing, even before the restoration of the formal dialogue, for the back channel diplomacy of the Pervez Musharraf era to be restored. India’s objective is to try to erode the Kashmiri intifada and the long-standing Pakistani position, both based on the UN Security Council resolutions which recognise the right of the Kashmiris to self-determination. While the back channel may well be restarted, the mandate of the Pakistani negotiator now flowing from a democratic government will not allow India any arbitrage between Pakistan’s public and back channel positions on this core dispute.
The demilitarisation of the Siachen Glacier is the most amenable for settlement. A high-level agreement was reached as far back as 1989. The only factor preventing its implementation is the obstinate position of the Indian Army, currently controversially showcased in India itself. Indians snipe at Pakistan claiming that the military remains dominant. However, on this issue, the leadership of India has been unable so far to assert its will on its army which is meant to be subservient. If it does so, the pace of bilateral improvement will dramatically change. The trade opening will enhance India’s exports and access to Pakistan’s market. Pakistan will not benefit in the same way due to Indian non-tariff barriers. Pakistani planners will have to act smartly. Encouraging imports from India which cost less than elsewhere. Adding items to the negative list if local industries come under severe strain. Accessing intermediate Indian technologies to catalyse the engineering hubs of Karachi and Gujranwala to fulfil their promise of becoming the workshops of the region. That can be the bright spot.
On the cautionary side the overarching dimension which governs the relationship are the India-Pakistan objectives towards each other. At the public level Indians and Pakistanis visiting each other’s countries, and meeting abroad, generally encounter an absence of hostility and a friendly attitude. This is not new. In the early 1950s, Indians crossing the border for cricket matches between the two countries in Lahore used to bring bananas as gifts and were escorted as guests in horse drawn carriages from the border by hospitable Lahoris. However in the Indian media, Pakistan is demonised as a terrorist-ridden country, ignoring India’s own widespread Maoist insurgency as well as India’s readiness to exploit anti-state elements in Balochistan through Afghanistan and elsewhere. Indian politicians and government representatives in international conferences abroad also criticise Pakistan as a standard part of their presentations. At best they are condescending and patronising. An Indian ambassador in Pakistan, at a time when America was demanding that Pakistan “do more”, advised that “Pakistan should move closer to India”. As he succinctly put it, “Yes, you will face some problems with us as well, but much less than relying on the Americans.”
That advice, while well meant from the Indian perceptive, sums up the overarching heart of the matter. For India, the objective is Pakistan as a junior partner which accepts such a status. An equal partner which has equally good relations with other countries, such as America and China, does not equate with the traditional vision of India’s policy makers. Pakistan recognises it is a smaller country in terms of population and the economy and will remain so with all the resulting pluses and minuses. However, as a nuclear power with a 180-million strong population it will not accept a relationship purely on Indian terms. India has to change this mindset.
Once it does so, it will find that it’s troubled relations with all its neighbours will improve. Without that happening India’s quest for the status and recognition it craves will remain illusionary.