India-Pakistan: changes and challenges 27 May 2014
The good news is that Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, has attended the inauguration of India’s new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. Apparently, the two leaders also met outside this significant event. This is a positive start, particularly as their nations are estranged with a poor-to-parlous relationship.
One of Modi’s greatest challenges will be managing expectations. He and his party’s massive majority have dramatically raised many Indians’ hopes and desires—even though the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP; Indian People’s Party) only received slightly less than one third of the total national vote. (Nevertheless, India’s first-past-the-post voting system translated this into a massive electoral win.) Whether Modi can satisfy his euphoric victory tweet that “India has won! We’re approaching the good days” remains to be seen. However, given human nature and the nature of politics, his leadership and rule almost certainly won’t satisfy and please all Indians.
Some Pakistanis now have increased hopes or expectations of improved India-Pakistan relations. These are not well founded. Apart from new governments in Pakistan last year and India just recently, little else has changed in India-Pakistan matters. Both nations still have (at least) eight issues to deal with, as per their Composite Dialogue which essentially has been suspended, or piecemeal at best, since the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008. Some of these issues are particularly difficult, strategic and emotional, chiefly Jammu and Kashmir, Siachen Glacier, and terrorism and drug-trafficking. There is one further highly significant issue not part of any regular India-Pakistan dialogue: the little discussed matter of water and water-sharing, with Pakistan at a significant disadvantage because of its downstream position and suffering because of its burgeoning, now excessively large, population for which it can only blame itself. There has been increasing angst about this vital commodity, particularly in Pakistan. Arguably, this is the most serious India-Pakistan issue of all.
In terms of changes in either nation, ironically we appear to have gone ‘back to the future’. The Pakistan Muslim League (PML) is again in power in Pakistan, just as it was when Pakistan came into existence in 1947. While Sharif’s PML (Nawaz) faction is less militant and driven to achieve than Jinnah’s original party, Pakistanis are still—and have been since 1947—dealing with the issue of how Islamic their nation should be and which interpretation of Islam is the ‘correct’ one for Pakistanis to adhere to—or be compelled to adhere to—via the imposition of Sharia Law, as hardline Taliban-type elements want. Conversely, with the BJP’s election, India is questioning what part religion should play, and seemingly is moving away from its entrenched and successful secularism. The BJP’s name arises from ancient Bharat (or India), with the party desiring more ‘Hinduness’ in Bharat/India, which geographic entity for some hardliners includes ‘lost’ areas like Pakistan and Bangladesh.
In some ways, therefore, we have reverted to 1947, with leaders and many people in both nations again trying to decide, both pacifically via political processes and violently via militancy, how Hindus and Muslims will cohabitate, and interact, on the subcontinent. In India, Hindus are feeling ascendant, with some acting accordingly, while Muslims, and sometimes Sikhs, are feeling nervous and considering their options. In Pakistan, Muslims are agitating, often violently, to impose their version of Islam, with some of Pakistan’s few remaining Hindus now fleeing for India or being forcefully converted to Islam. Publicly, people in both religious groups are using the other to shore up their own ideology and positions. Thus, religion used for political purposes is again dividing the subcontinent and its people—and stalling the improvement of India-Pakistan relations.
One major difference from 1947 is the current leadership. Nawaz Sharif is not of the same intellectual calibre as Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Similarly, Narendra Modi is no Jawaharlal Nehru. Conversely, Sharif seems more conciliatory than the often inflexible Jinnah, which aspect may actually assist India-Pakistan relations, as long as the Pakistan military agrees to any conciliation. Equally, Modi seems a less complex person than Nehru, with a clearer economic agenda for India that vicariously may help improve India-Pakistan relations if the two nations, particularly Pakistan, can agree their trade regime. Modi also will need to control recalcitrant states, such as West Bengal and Tamil Nadu seeking to influence India’s foreign relations. Hopefully, neither leader will have to face any devastating partition-type divisions, upheavals and bloodshed that confronted Nehru and Jinnah. Rather, their task is to resolve how India and Pakistan can normalise their relationship and to decide how Indians and Pakistanis will re-engage and, to some extent, even partially reunify, via closer trade, cooperative actions and other day-to-day cross-border activities, particularly travel, study and exchanges that ‘normal’ nations engage in. While both leaders possibly want improved relations, each seems to want it on his own terms. Neither seemingly has much genuine interest in, knowledge about, or deep warmth for, the ‘other’.
To normalise India-Pakistan relations will be challenging, and will take time. There is significant, deeply entrenched mistrust between both nations’ populations—a factor made significantly worse because there is such a paucity of direct contact between them. It is almost impossible for an ‘average’ Indian to meet an ‘average’ Pakistani in any easy, meaningful or ongoing way. Resolving the Siachen Glacier issue is the litmus test. If India and Pakistan’s leaders can solve this issue, then all other India-Pakistan issues are soluble. The Pakistan militaries’ veto power on all issues is obvious and well known. Unusually, the Indian Army has been very political on Siachen, with its generals wanting ‘iron clad’ guarantees that, should Indian forces withdraw from Siachen, their mistrusted foe will desist from capturing these vacated positions. Therefore, to resolve Siachen Glacier will require both prime ministers asserting themselves over their respective militaries. Overall, to improve India-Pakistan relations will require vision, leadership and both leaders asserting themselves over their respective nations—and getting on with each other. It’s still too early to tell how they will fare.
27 May 2014