The reality principle

The misfortune of our public discourse is that often demagoguery masquerades as realism. It represents restraint as an act of cowardice or naivety. In some quarters, there may be a romantic naivety, but our policy has been a hard-headed realist one. Manmohan Singh has a lot to answer for. He has brought governance and economy to the brink, creating a deep sense of vacuum. But his Pakistan policy cannot be blamed for being naive or woolly headed. On the contrary, it is informed by a profound realism.

Some defenders of engagement with Pakistan sometimes make the large assumption that Pakistani public opinion has changed decisively. The honest answer is that we do not know. Certainly, there is a great desire in Pakistan to emancipate itself from its current troubles. Confrontation with India does not help. And individual to individual relations are always charming love festivals. But it is too soon to say whether this is a decisive structural shift. The receptivity to conspiracy theories about what India might be doing in Afghanistan is still remarkably high; and public sentiment is often a very contextual thing. So while there is reason to be cautiously optimistic, this cannot be the basis of our dealings with Pakistan. In any case, in Pakistan, the disjuncture between the state security apparatus and public sentiment is deep. The state structure operates almost sui generis, with a logic of its own, and it would be foolish to assume that improving the sentiment among the people will automatically translate into greater security for us. It does not even translate into greater security for Pakistanis. But no sensible peacenik has made this assumption.

In a curious way, the assumptions behind the prime minister's policy have always been the opposite. The fact of the matter is that Pakistan is a society in which all its internal domestic contradictions are now playing out with full force: Shia-Sunni tensions, the relations between Islamabad and the provinces, particularly Balochistan, the basic allocation of powers between civilian and military rule, and the role of the clergy, make for a volatile mix. As Farzana Shaikh has powerfully argued, the easiest way to paper over these contradictions is to invoke the threat of the external enemy, India. Some have argued that anti-Americanism now runs deeper in Pakistani politics than anti-Indianism. This may be true. But anti-Americanism has a different political valence, not the least because it is as much a weapon the military uses to extract rents as anything else. Anyone with a deep sense of history knows that an enduring peace with Pakistan can come only if there is a stable resolution of its own identity crisis. We have to prepare ourselves that this resolution may be volatile and we have to deal with the consequences. The best thing we can do is let Pakistan wallow in its own internal contradictions, and not short circuit the process. The surest way of making the military establishment stronger is war talk.

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