Our faff-Pak policy

My alma mater of 12 wonderful years in journalism, India Today, just came out with a provocative idea on its cover: Can Pakistan Be Saved? I, however, dare to suggest that in India we need to ask that question a little differently: Should Pakistan Be Saved? Then you can proceed with follow-on questions and corollaries: is it good or bad for us if Pakistan is saved/ not saved? And if we conclude that it is good for us, in fact of vital interest to us, that Pakistan is not only "saved" but emerges a stronger, stabler, moderate, modernising and democratic nation through its current crisis, then we need to think what we can do to help that process.

For too long now both India and Pakistan have had their judgment clouded by contemptuous distrust of each other. The Pakistanis refer to us as their enemies rather more freely. We are a bit more cautious, hypocritical, and non-Punjabi about the use of such direct language. But let's be honest. Can we deny the fact that every new terror attack on the Pakistani establishment, every development that marks a further decline in the authority of its government is greeted with an utterly unconcealed sense of delight? This is not just the mood of the mobs here. Even the "intelligentsia", the TV talking heads, opinion page columnists, government spokespersons, all have the same smug air of "I-told-you-so" and "so-what-else-did-they-expect" satisfaction. And they ask the same patronising question: hell, can Pakistan be saved?

One has to be brave, even foolhardy, to go against a flood of such national unanimity. But you have to now debate if it will be good for India that Pakistan continues to slide. Or, do we have the wherewithal to deal with whatever is left behind, if Pakistan does not survive? Can we deal with five anarchic, angry "stans" instead of one next door to us, with no central authority to share a hotline with? Would we prefer to live with a nuclear-armed anarchy that listens to nobody? What use will coercive diplomacy be then? Who will we bomb?

It is time therefore to stop jubilating at the unfolding tragedy in Pakistan. India has to think of becoming a part of the solution. And that solution lies in not merely saving Pakistan Pakistan will survive. It has evolved a strong nationalism that does bind its people even if that does not reflect in its current internal dissensions. It is slowly building a democratic system, howsoever imperfect. But it has a very robust media and a functional higher judiciary. Also, in its army, it has at least one national institution that provides stability and continuity. The question for us is, what kind of Pakistan do we want to see emerging from this bloodshed? What if fundamentalists of some kind, either religious or military or a combination of both, were to take control of Islamabad? The Americans will always have the option of cutting their losses and leaving. They have a long history of doing that successfully, from Vietnam to Iraq and maybe Afghanistan next. What will be our Plan-B then?

Smugness breeds intellectual laziness. Maybe that is why we feel so comforted with the idea of outsourcing the responsibility of stabilising and moderating the Pakistani state and society to the Americans. We talk of their Af-Pak strategy as if it is some funny superpower game being played some place far, far away. We laugh at their failures just as we smile the cynical "didn't-I-know-it-was-coming" smile each time Islamabad receives a knock from its own terrorists. This is delusional. As the Americans would say, the sooner we get off this kerb, the better.

Both, as a responsible and important regional power, as well as a permanent resident in this very nasty neighbourhood, we cannot leave our future to the Americans and sit back. We have to be constructively pro-active now. We may not like this government of Pakistan, or we may not think they have as much power as a government should have, but we have to talk to it. It's now been a year since communication broke down after 26/11 and the prime minister's effort to break out at Sharm el-Sheikh ran into the wall of accumulated prejudice and anger. That process has to be resumed now. We can sacrifice another two or more generations waiting and that perfect moment to make one more peace move to Pakistan may never come. So look at this as a reasonably good moment to do so.

As the Headley-Rana revelations show, nothing can guarantee another terror attack will not happen in India. It also shows that what we now face is not just the ISI or groups controlled by it. They may still play footsie with some limbs of this monster but essentially it is now out of their control. Our supreme national interest lies in Islamabad winning its own war on terror. It can be nobody's case that the terrorists should win this war. Your enemy's enemy being your friend is an unquestionable truism. But in this case, the enemy's enemy will in fact be a larger threat so we must hope that the "enemy" wins and do what we can to help it in that war.

Time has therefore come to nuance our policy as well as national mood and psychology, to not merely reopen communication with Pakistan but to also make moves, offers, anything that will enhance the power and credibility of its government which, with all its faults, is still the most moderate of all forces in that region. Finally, time has also come to set in place some kind of diplomatic standard operating procedures in case more terror attacks take place because a third round of coercive diplomacy may spin out of control. We have to now demonstrate a stake in Pakistan's survival and moderation as a democratic state. Just bombing somebody there in anger won't work, because people who are targeting us are also targeting the rest of the modern world, from Chicago to Copenhagen.


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