This is not the first time an Indian Prime Minister has extended a "hand of friendship" towards Pakistan, nor is it the first time Dr. Manmohan Singh has done so. Prime Minister Nehru repeatedly offered his hand of friendship and so did his successors Indira and Rajiv Gandhi. IK Gujral hoped the Gujral doctrine would help lessen the trust deficit and Vajpayee undertook a bus yatra to reaffirm that India has accepted the creation of Pakistan and wishes Pakistan well. Dr. Manmohan Singh has repeatedly offered his hand of friendship to Pakistan and expressed the desire to reduce the trust deficit between the two countries.
However, the legacy of conflict built on the bedrock of mistrust is hard to dislodge. As I have argued in my forthcoming book, Aparna Pande. Escaping India: Explaining Pakistan's Foreign Policy the mistrust that the Muslim League felt towards the Indian National Congress carried over even after Partition. A majority of Pakistanis -- not just leaders but also lay public -- believes that India has never accepted the creation of Pakistan and that India's foreign policy is geared towards the undoing of Partition. The fact that all Indian prime ministers and a majority of Indian leaders -- even those belonging to the Hindu nationalist movement -- have repeatedly expressed their acceptance of Pakistan and offered their hand of friendship, has not changed this perception. The Pakistani argument is that Pakistan mistrusts both India's intentions and India's capabilities and hence the fervent desire on the behalf of Pakistan to try to obtain parity at all levels -- especially economic and military -- with India.
The Composite Dialogue, which was started in 2004, received a setback in 2007 when General Musharraf faced domestic crisis and then was called off by India soon after the Mumbai terror attacks of November 2008. Since then the two Prime Ministers and two Foreign Ministers have met once and the two Foreign Secretaries from both sides have met thrice, last meeting was in early February. At the February 2011 meeting it was decided to restart the peace process and the two Foreign Ministers are supposed to meet sometime in July 2011.
For the last few months top-level Indian functionaries have aired their views on why India needs better relations with Pakistan. According to Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna India is ready to go "more than half way" in normalizing ties with Pakistan if Pakistan agrees to be "more sensitive" towards New Delhi's "core concern" of terrorism. Referring to Pakistan as India's "most important" neighbor, Finance Minister Mukherjee stated that "the stability and well-being of Pakistan" is in the interest of this country as the two could not develop and prosper in isolation today. "Most of us will agree that we cannot wish away our neighbors. We can choose our friends, we can be selective in choosing our friends.... But neighbors are there where they are. I cannot simply wish them away. Those days are gone when one could have displaced them by force. The basic question before every Indian policy-maker is whether we should live with our neighbor in perpetual tension or try to live in peace. And fortunately, there is a broad consensus across the political spectrum on these issues."
India has good reasons to seek peace with Pakistan. Indian leaders are alarmed by the growing influence of radical Islamists in Pakistan and the weakening influence of liberals. Any prospect of instability in Pakistan threatens India the most. Those policy hawks in India who expect Pakistan to break up because of its internal problems -- and hence do not see any benefit in engaging with Pakistan -- tend to forget that the country most affected adversely if Pakistan breaks up will be India. Millions of refugees escaping Pakistan will not go to conflict-ridden or unstable Afghanistan, Iran or the Central Asian states, but to India.
As Satinder Kumar Lambah, Special Envoy in the Prime Minister's Office and key interlocutor in the back channel talks between India and Pakistan, recently argued India's "most critical engagement is with Pakistan" and that "not engaging a neighbor with 180 million people, strong antagonism towards India, a growing nuclear weapons arsenal and worsening instability is not a wise choice. We can defend ourselves against hostility but instability in the neighborhood can have unpredictable consequences."
The 2004 composite dialogue process achieved a lot and when restarted there is a chance that at least the minor roadblocks -- like Sir Creek, Siachen -- can be resolved quickly before moving on to the more complicated issues like revamping the visa system and Kashmir.
Since a terror blast in Pune a year ago India has suffered no big terror attack. Further, the flare-up in Indian administered Jammu & Kashmir in the summer of 2010 was of local origin and for the first time India chose not to blame Pakistan for the unrest. India has also stated it will further reduce its security force presence in Kashmir.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is correct in stating that South Asia will not realize its potential unless India-Pakistan relations are normalized. However, normalization can only take place when both sides agree to work together. While the civilian government in Pakistan has repeatedly asked for a resumption of talks there is a lot more Pakistan needs to do in order to demonstrate its positive intentions. Unfortunately, while the current civilian government has a genuine desire to improve relations, the military-intelligence apparatus has the final say in foreign and security policies. The civilian government is currently too weak and facing too many political and economic challenges along with fighting the jihadi insurgents to be able to regain the decision-making role in this arena.
However, if a civilian government could deliver on India-Pakistan issues -- whether Sir Creek, Siachen, visa issues or even an opening on Kashmir -- that would provide them with a leverage over the military-intelligence establishment. This is where India can play a role. Restarting the talks with Pakistan in a way that we start to resolve some of the minor issues and help build the strength of a civilian democratic government in Pakistan -- which is in India's vital interests -- is the best way out.
Dr. Singh has a key role to play in this. He is a world-renowned statesman and since he will not be standing for elections in 2014, he can afford to take a risk which others will not. However, his government is currently battered by the opposition over graft scandals and high inflation which reduces the political space he has to operate within.
Still, one hopes that when the Home Secretaries of both countries meet in end-March instead of blaming each other in public they will try to discuss how to build more trust by setting down guidelines for resolving the Sir Creek, Siachen and visa issues.
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