Is India’s risky fatalism simply a lack of viable alternatives?
This appears to be a week of misleading headlines. First, as Pragmatic Euphony helpfully pointed out, the international media mischaracterised a speech by Home Secretary G.K. Pillai on troop withdrawals from Jammu and Kashmir. Now, the web editors at the Washington Post have done one better. Columnist David Ignatius’s piece datelined New Delhi on the India-Pakistan relationship appears online under the headline “India and Pakistan on the Brink.” What is strange about this is that the content of the article is neither dire in its pronouncements, nor is it really about brinkmanship. Furthermore, the headline in the print edition—which I happen to subscribe to—is “A Risky Fatalism in India,” which more accurately captures the thrust of the piece.
But, moving beyond the headline, there is still a lot in the article deserving of discussion. Ignatius traveled to India to participate in the biannual Track II dialogue hosted by the Aspen Institute and Confederation of Indian Industry (full disclosure: I’ve worked on past editions of the dialogue), and he was left with the impression that Indians were fatalistic, if not secretly pleased, by Pakistan’s negative political and economic trajectory. Ignatius is a careful observer, but is by no means a regional specialist, so he should be excused for overlooking some important aspects of the India-Pakistan equation. That said, given the venue and timing, it might be useful to point out some of the shortcomings of his analysis:
Everything is going right these days for India, except for one big problem: It is living next to a Pakistan that is coming apart politically, and Indian leaders insist with a tone of resignation that there’s nothing they can do about it.
As I’ve pointed out before, the problems posed by Pakistan cannot be brushed under the table, but it is by no means certain that Pakistan will hold back India’s prospects of economic growth and success. North Korea hasn’t constrained South Korea, nor has Iran done the same to, say, Israel or Dubai.
Starting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, top Indian officials know that their booming democracy is endangered by the growing chaos across the border. They say that they’re willing to revive back-channel negotiations with Islamabad to resolve the long-festering problem of Kashmir. They favor confidence-building measures to reduce the risk of war between these two nuclear-armed nations.
This acknowledgment is interesting given that both the (print) headline and the thrust of the piece itself are that Indians are not taking Pakistan’s failure seriously enough.
And then, in the next breath, Indian officials insist that such positive steps won’t make any difference. The Pakistani military doesn’t want any reduction in tensions, they argue. The civilian government is crumbling and incapable of making a deal. Even Singh, long an advocate of better relations with Pakistan, is said to have concluded that hopes for better relations are “wishful thinking.”
This is spot on. Much like the Obama administration and Iran, or successive U.S. administrations and North Korea, India finds itself in a dilemma negotiating with a party that does not want negotiations to succeed.
A few hundred miles away in Islamabad, you’d hear the same bleak message from Pakistani military and political leaders. Yes, they know that the immediate threat to Pakistan is from Islamic militants, not India. Yes, they know that restoring a back-channel dialogue with New Delhi might ease tensions. But no, they don’t see any way to step back from the brink. The Indians, in their view, are conspiring to undermine Pakistan.
This is not spot on. The Pakistani military, including Army Chief Kayani, openly admits its single-minded focus on India. It is also unclear whether Pakistan is at all desirable of restoring the back-channel dialogue, which in large part explains its limitations. Finally, Indians can point to acts such as the 2008 Mumbai attacks as a Pakistani conspiracy to harm their country; conspiracy theories aside, what exactly is India doing to Pakistan of comparable severity? The analysis falls prey, as many do, to false symmetry.
This is a problem that might seem ripe for U.S. mediation. Washington has close ties with both countries, after all, and it could act as an honest broker on issues such as Kashmir, which is ruled by India but claimed by both countries. But Indians say that American intervention could just make matters worse – poisoning public opinion against any deal that emerged.
This is a poor articulation of Indian concerns by his interlocutors. Public opinion is only one aspect of why U.S. mediation is undesirable from India’s standpoint. Here are a few more reasons.
U.S. diplomats are walking on eggshells: The Kashmir problem is so sensitive that American officials sometimes refer to it as “the K word,” as if the very subject were unmentionable. Washington has gently encouraged dialogue between the two countries, but two meetings last year between their foreign ministers collapsed amid mutual recriminations. They will have another chance next month at a regional gathering in Bhutan, but nobody seems very hopeful.
Why exactly did talks collapse? “Mutual recriminations” blurs some important details, and also reinforces a deceptive equality of action and intention. This certainly merits a deeper explanation.
The Indians watch Pakistan’s political instability with grim resignation. The root problem, they argue, is that the Pakistani military is unwilling to sever its links with Islamic terrorists. Until the Pakistanis break this insurgency, they will be at its mercy. Dialogue with India won’t make any difference, they insist.
“The last thing we want to see is Pakistan slide into instability,” says one top Indian official, but he cautions that there is little that India or America can do. “It’s Pakistan’s internal problem. And that, we can’t fix.”
It is unclear who this official might be, but there is certainly a lot more that the United States can do, as India has been advocating for some time.
As India celebrates its own economic success, there is a slight tone of South Asian schadenfreude about Pakistan’s troubles. “There is one school of thought that says, ‘If they [the Pakistanis] are committing suicide, then you don’t have to murder them,’” the top official concedes. “But the consequences of that are horrible.”
I came away from these discussions feeling that Indian leaders are being shortsighted: If Pakistan descends further into violence and chaos, India will suffer from the fallout. And with these two bitter rivals, there is always the risk of nuclear war. If I were a newly prosperous Indian, I’d want to help my ailing neighbor as a matter of self-protection.
But try making that argument to Indian officials. “You have to recognize that some problems can’t be solved,” counsels one prominent Indian. Officials here don’t want American mediation, and they think outreach to Pakistan won’t do any good. Meanwhile, the South Asian tinderbox keeps on getting hotter.
The prescriptions contradict the observations made at the outset and throughout: that Indian officials want to offer an olive branch to Pakistan, that they realize that the consequences of a failing Pakistan are not in India’s interests, but that there is nothing they can do about it as the Pakistanis have simply not been receptive to any overtures.