Sharm El-Sheikh Joint Declaration May Be Manmohan Singh’s Big Gamble on India-Pakistan Relations
By Shekhar Gupta
Jul 25, 2009
L K Advani has a story from his eventful and ultimately disastrous interactions with Pervez Musharraf during the Agra summit. He says he told Musharraf that if he really wanted to restore confidence between our two countries, all he needed to do was turn over Dawood Ibrahim to India. Musharraf was taken aback both by the directness and “loadedness” of that question, ambushed for a moment by a “mere civilian” thought. Then, recovering, he told Advani that where he came from (the army), this was called “minor tactics”, not worth indulging in when nations talk at that level. It is a different matter that Musharraf’s idea of eschewing minor tactics was to come straight to Kashmir and settle it in one sitting, of course, as per his “most reasonable” formulations. But the fact is that for far too long our bilateral exchanges are a history of petty, minor tactical moves, ambushes, pin-pricks and totally meaningless, purposeless manoeuvres. It follows of course that after each bilateral engagement each side has been able to go back home “having conceded nothing”, and surely never has the draft of any of our declarations or joint statements been described as less than perfect. We are, after all, governments run by joint secretaries, several generations of which species, on both sides of the border, embody the very finest in bureaucratic perfection.
That is why it is fascinating that the most commonly stated discomfort with the Sharm el-Sheikh joint declaration is with its drafting. Let’s concede for a moment that the drafting is bloody awful, a real shame. So what? A joint declaration is not a legally binding contract and is as good as the intentions of the two parties. Over the past six decades both sides have signed and tossed many such joint statements, even declarations. Pakistan’s record here is much more spectacular, having nearly repudiated all three substantive accords of the past four decades, the Shimla Accord, Lahore Declaration and then the Islamabad Declaration, signed in the course of three different decades. It is, therefore, utterly pointless to worry about the imperfections, if any, in the draft of the Sharm el-Sheikh joint statement. What matters is the intention behind it, because what might seem like slip-ups in the draft are perhaps intentional. Could it be that the larger intention is to move on from minor tactics now to some bold, if risky, grand strategy? An effort to get our Pakistan policy out of the trenches?
It is still too close to the event to arrive at any conclusions but Manmohan Singh’s track record would suggest that he tends to make one bold and risky but game-changing move early on in each tenure in power. As finance minister, the first burst of reform came in much less than the now-popular “first 100 days”. The first draft of the Indo-US nuclear deal was signed about a year into his first term as prime minister. Each of these was a bold move that dominated the rest of his term, on which he conceded little, risked his job and finally brought about lasting change. Sharm el-Sheikh now looks like another leap of faith. Before getting into the merits of any policy shift, I would feel quite confident in saying that this new opening to Pakistan (and indirectly, an expansion of our strategic relationship with the US) is the big move he has chosen for his second tenure as prime minister.
India’s post-26/11 position, that it would not talk to Pakistan until it was satisfied with the action against those responsible, was now becoming untenable. Coercive diplomacy usually comes with a short use-by date and, as time passes, its returns decline as risks increase. Short of going to war, or launching a full-fledged subversion in retaliation, what are India’s options if it is not engaging with Pakistan? Is war an option? Or, at least, is war a preferred option? If it is not, the time is not ripe to make the next moves, and Manmohan Singh has decided to risk his neck again by moving from minor tactics to high strategy.
The new engagement with Pakistan must be seen with the Hillary Clinton visit that followed. It is probably a minor matter that possibly for the first time in decades a very high American official broke what, in the State Department, is called the inviolable two-country rule whereby every official visiting one country in the subcontinent must visit the other as well. While India must keep pressure on to ensure that masterminds of 26/11 are given the punishment they deserve, a much bigger, more challenging — but equally, more important — objective is changing the nature of Pakistani society.
A nation of 15 crore people, mostly angry and poor, with such an unstable, mercurial polity, growing extremism, armed with nuclear weapons, a conventional army of nearly a million that is unique in the Islamic world for being capable of absorbing modern technology as also for following orders from its brass, and a million other “irregulars” and lashkars, is now no longer just a global migraine — as Madeleine Albright called it — but a global nightmare. You can score minor tactical points or victories with this Pakistan, but unless it is stabilised and redefines itself as a modern, democratic — and obviously Islamic — republic, it will remain the greatest threat to the democratic world. We just happen to live in their most immediate neighbourhood and so have the most to worry about. What are our options other than joining a global (US-led) effort to bring Pakistan back from just that brink? Of course, if we got really angry and frustrated and put our heads to it, we could subvert Pakistan too, try to break it up in pieces. But what will that do for us? What will that leave us? An even more unstable and irresponsible Pakistan, with much of its Punjabi core, the army and the nukes almost entirely intact. Would we prefer to live in that neighbourhood instead? Can an entire nation of 112 crore people grab green cards or H1-Bs and migrate to some place two continents away?
It may be early days yet, but events of the past two weeks point towards a fascinating shift in the way India relates to Pakistan, by de-hyphenating its own policy towards the US and others engaged in Project Pakistan. Manmohan Singh’s government has now announced India’s intention to break away from a Pakistan-centric view of its Pakistan policy and join this larger project, thereby globalising its Pakistan strategy. The US and India, therefore, for the first time in their engagement, are talking less of Pakistan’s compliance on one incident or the other, but on its very future. There are risks, particularly in a situation where your friends (the US) could be as unpredictable as your adversaries. But Manmohan Singh has decided to lead his troops out of the trenches.