Pakistan: perceptions, prejudices & policies


Tihar Jail
Oct 2, 2009
Pakistan: perceptions, prejudices & policies

Pakistan is not at all unhappy with the present situation; if talks take place, it wins, if they don't, India is on the defensive.
A three-day visit to Islamabad to attend a conference, in which some influential Pakistani opinion-makers participated, was useful in understanding some of the perceptions, prejudices and policies of that country.

Not having had the opportunity to converse with that universal barometer of public opinion, the taxi driver — since transport was graciously arranged by the hosts — one was forced to draw such conclusions as one could from watching television. (Security considerations also ruled out moving about freely.) The electronic medium is vibrant there, with close to 50 television channels competing for ratings and advertising revenues. (Geo T.V. owned by the Jang group is way ahead of its rivals.) Going by that, three issues seemed to preoccupy the people of Pakistan — the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, the Sania Mirza-Shoaib Malik drama, and inflation, which would include severe shortage of electricity and corruption, in other words the problem of governance. On all the domestic matters, civic society appears to be very active.

The 18th Amendment does not expressly take away the President's powers to appoint services chiefs. He will retain this function, but will have to exercise it on the advice of the Prime Minister. One of the provisions will restore the term of office of the services chiefs to four years as used to be the case. While General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani is widely, almost universally, expected to get an extension, it would become academic since he would, in any case, be entitled to a full four-year term in terms of the 18th Amendment — in other words, one more year in office beyond November.

There are no doubt sections in Pakistan which genuinely desire good-neighbourly relations with India. One respected economist openly advocated Pakistan linking its markets to the Indian and Chinese economies as a sure way of pulling the country out of its present two-and-a-half per cent growth rate. We were asked to believe that the civilian government, which has outstanding achievements to its credit, such as the 18th Amendment, and the award of the Federal Finance Commission, has gained respect and credibility and is functioning independently; the army does not call the shots, we were assured.

Three issues dominate the India-Pakistan discourse — Kashmir, water and Afghanistan. On the way from the airport to the city, a square is named ‘Kashmir Chowk.' There is a sign: Srinagar 380 km. Water is now raised to the same level of importance as, perhaps even more than, Kashmir. Afghanistan, the Pakistanis insist, is best left to Pakistan, and to the Afghans of course; India should not want a role there. At the least, it should not permit its consulates to carry out subversive activities in Balochistan. Some people, who would certainly know better, place the number of Indian consulates in Afghanistan at 12! (The actual number is four and they have been functioning since 1949.) Incidentally, there are about 60,000 Pakistani workers in Afghanistan as opposed to around 4,000 from India.

On terrorism, the refrain is: the whole country sympathised with India after 26/11 which Pakistan condemned unequivocally but India is overdoing ‘coercive diplomacy.' Civil society in Pakistan, which was fully behind India after the Mumbai attack, is now thoroughly disenchanted with India and is fully behind the Pakistani army. The army has re-established its credibility with the people after its determined campaign to defeat the Pakistan Taliban.

Water is definitely the new issue for Pakistan's propaganda machine. There is water scarcity in the country, but it is entirely — not largely — the result of mismanagement. There are inter-province disputes, with the Sindh complaining about Punjab not leaving enough water for the Sindhis. The storage capacity is highly inadequate and agriculture is inefficient, more so than in India. No less a person than Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi himself publicly admitted that nearly 40 million acre feet of water goes to the sea for want of storage capacity and that India is not to blame for this state of affairs; his remark was blanked out in the Pakistani media. The print and electronic media ceaselessly churn out stories of India stealing Pakistan's water, building hundreds of dams, destroying ecology in PoK, etc. Hafiz Saeed openly calls for a water jihad. President Asif Ali Zardari, in his address to the opening session of Parliament on April 5 mentioned water ahead of Kashmir, but he was careful to add that the issue should be dealt with within the framework of the Indus Water Treaty; he knows that the Treaty is more generous to Pakistan than to India.

This is not the space to go into the details of the water issue. But the fact is Pakistan is doing everything to blow it out of proportion as well as internationalise it, though with limited success so far. Water may soon become an emotive issue for the people of Pakistan, in which case all kinds of negative consequences might follow. India must prepare for this contingency. We have a solid case which needs explaining to our own people, especially in Kashmir, as also the people of Pakistan. Our High Commissioner in Islamabad is fully cognisant of the potential for mischief and is doing what he can. We need to think of innovative ways to explain the facts to the two publics in order to prevent and pre-empt the issue from acquiring menacing dimensions.

All is not ‘hunky-dory' between Pakistan and Hamid Karzai, despite the Afghan President describing the two countries as conjoined twins. The Taliban, which Mr. Karzai wants integrated, is not the one Pakistan prefers. It seems Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who landed up in Kabul without an invitation, is laying down conditions which Mr. Karzai is in no mood to even consider, such as new presidential and parliamentary elections and the pullout of American and Nato forces within six months. It is obvious that the relations between the Taliban and Pakistan deteriorated during the period immediately preceding and following 9/11. This is described in detail in Mullah Zaeef's book My life with the Taliban. Zaeef uses some ‘choice' words to describe his feelings towards Pakistan. Pakistan would like to use its influence with the Taliban's senior leadership in the process of reconciliation and reintegration, whereas the U.S. wants to persuade the foot soldiers and lower levels of the Taliban to switch loyalties. There is some scope for serious differences between Pakistan and the U.S. on this score though we in India ought not to bank too much on them. Pakistan continues to be indispensable to Barack Obama's objectives in Afghanistan; he knows it and Pakistan knows it. Islamabad may not be very successful in using this leverage to persuade Washington to pressure New Delhi on India-Pakistan issues, but it will not be for want of trying.

At the conclusion of the Foreign Secretary-level talks on February 25, Pakistan's official position was that it was not desperate for talks. It is taking full advantage of the perception in both countries that India is, if not desperate, quite keen on talks. This writer's hunch is that Pakistan is not at all unhappy with the present situation; if talks take place, Pakistan wins, if they don't, India is on the defensive. On balance, we should indicate our willingness to schedule another Secretary-level round, but not in a hurry and certainly not in a time-bound framework dictated by the timing of SAARC or other multilateral meetings. At the same time, we must not fight shy of discussing any subject Pakistan may wish to raise, including Kashmir. Let it elaborate its views on Kashmir. We can easily do the same, refuting its position. The only subject we must not discuss — as distinct from not allowing it to be mentioned — is water, which should be discussed only in the framework of the Indus Treaty.

A word on Track II. These dialogues can be useful, provided they are used to talk candidly about everything that divides us, and not just to mouth ‘the same people, same culture' sentiment, etc. We ought not to be concerned if the conversation, at times, gets frosty or even contentious. Only such a dialogue would serve to create a better understanding between the two peoples.

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