How many times have we seen Indian and Pakistani leaders meet, say nice things, pledge their efforts to peace, and witness little change on the ground? There is cricket diplomacy initiated by Gen. Zia-ul-Haq in the mid-1980s when he invited himself to an India-Pakistan Test match in Jaipur and during the lunch period had a chat with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Last year Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani watched the World Cup India-Pakistan semi-finals in Chandigarh and had an hour with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Now President Asif Ali Zardari and son Bilawal conducted “dargah diplomacy” — a pilgrimage to Ajmer Sharif with a lunch break in Delhi with the Indian Prime Minister. Despite all the good intentions, these informal meetings have produced little and the Delhi detour on April 8 by the Zardaris will go down as another instance of cosmetic diplomacy that looked good, achieved little. The supposedly new wrinkle of allowing bilateral trade and economic cooperation to take off even as the more contentious issues, such as Kashmir, are dealt with at a more deliberate pace in negotiations by diplomats trained to work at snail speed, is not new. This is the path India and China have taken, and Delhi has been trying to push Islamabad towards it for over a decade, finally with some success. It is fortuitous that Beijing, worried about the ring-fencing of China by many Asian states in cooperation with the United States, is eager to distance Delhi from Washington by incentivising non-involvement in such a containment scheme. And for this purpose is encouraging Islamabad to establish an economic nexus with India. Whatever the motivations, Pakistan has decided to confer the Most Favoured Nation status on India, a privilege Delhi had accorded Pakistan in 1996, which the latter did not have the wit to exploit. The question is if Kashmir — a core issue for Pakistan — is sought to be set aside, is Delhi’s main concern — Pakistan-based terrorist gangs operating without any official hindrance — also to receive the same treatment? A sometime press adviser to the Prime Minister, Sanjaya Baru, has written about how Dr Singh got many things right in terms of symbolism and friendly gestures in his attempts to rev up the rapprochement process with Gen. Pervez Musharraf-led Pakistan during 2004-07. But he stopped short of revealing just why Dr Singh, on the cusp of ushering in enduring peace in the subcontinent on the basis of a Kashmir accord he had negotiated with Gen. Musharraf in 2006, got cold feet, refused to sign the deal and squandered a great opportunity that may never come again. Gen. Musharraf was desperate for that agreement, as it would have strengthened his hold on the Pakistani state, bolstered his political standing at home, kept at bay those asking him to surrender his position as Pakistan’s Army chief and impressed the Pakistani people with his achievement of getting India, for the first time, to concede a slight role to Pakistan in overseeing the affairs of Jammu and Kashmir. Gen. Musharraf was satisfied because he craved some such role, however hollow. A unique mix of tactical finesse, strategic blindness and political opportunism, Gen. Musharraf, as head of state, Army Chief and virtual dictator of the country, would have committed Pakistan to a treaty the Pakistani military could not have easily wriggled out of. Dealing with a one-point source of power is always easier. But as a Musharraf-type of phenomenon is unlikely to recur in Pakistan any time soon, India will be compelled to deal with an elected government in Islamabad, which will always act with the inevitable veto by the Pakistan Army in mind. In the event, the dispute will continue to simmer, and occasionally come to a boil. The Indian government’s concern with Pakistan’s “internal political dynamic” and the desire to settle outstanding disputes only with an elected government in Islamabad is, as I have repeatedly argued over the last 20-odd years, the cross this country has had to bear at a progressively higher strategic cost. Whether Pakistan is a democracy or not is the Pakistani people’s business. But the sooner Delhi gives up the idea that a democratically-elected government in Islamabad is somehow better, more amenable, from the point of view of shutting down terrorist activity than a military regime, the better it will be in terms of acknowledging the basic reality in Pakistan, and adjusting to it. An unpacified neighbour who has discovered the joys of brandishing the terrorist stick against India, moreover, is like a child playing with fire — fascinated by its heat and light rather than thinking about how it could burn down his own home. Retaliation against Pakistan in response to terrorist acts, according to national security adviser (NSA) Shivshankar Menon, is unnecessary because, as he stated at an event sometime back, “Why kill a man who is committing suicide?” The trouble is there’s no certainty that Pakistan, an ostensibly failed state, will actually implode as a very large part of the Indian establishment believes will happen, for purely self-serving reasons. It helps the Indian government stay with status quo-ist policies that everybody’s got used to. In any case, whatever the nature of the dispensation in Islamabad, India will have to think up some imaginative ways to get the Pakistan Army off its terrorism hobby horse. All that the official and unofficial Indian squawking and bellyaching about Hafeez Saeed does is raise the nuisance value of the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba for the Pakistani generals. This is elementary stuff but it is something the Indian government, led by the ministries of external affairs and defence, finds hard to wrap its head around. So Delhi keeps missing opportunities and Indian diplomats and the military brass keep huffing and puffing about the threat ostensibly posed by Pakistan. But, to turn the NSA’s logic around, how’s a man bent on suicide a danger to you?
[Published in the Asian Age and the Deccan Chronicle April 12, 2012, at www.asianage.com/columnists/cosmetic-diplomacy-198]