No two countries in recent history have bickered for so long and with such tenacity as India and Pakistan. The Germans argued with the Danes for years over Schleswig-Holstein; it is now a province of greater Germany. For decades, the Greeks and the Turks crossed swords over Cyprus; this island is now bifurcated into two zones. The British and the Argentines have yet to decide who has sovereignty over the Falklands/Malvinas Islands.
Since their Independence in 1947, India and Pakistan have been wedded to each other physically, geographically, never politically. They are adhesive devoted adversaries, the ageing Beatrice and Benedict of South-Asia, bandying ‘word for word and frown for frown.’
Optimists had hoped that with the election of Mian Nawaz Sharif and Mr Narendra Modi as prime ministers, relations between the two states would have moved to a more refined level of recrimination. After all, Sharif had hosted Atal Behari Vajpayee in Lahore in 1999 and bandied Punjabi with his successor Manmohan Singh. Mr Modi, eleven years old when the war over East Pakistan took place, belongs to a younger, less sentimental generation of Indians who see India from a north-south axis, not an east-west one.
Yet, it has become clear that, like Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Benedict, each finds it difficult to deviate from a script crafted by playwrights who like the Bard of Avon prefer to remain off-stage.
Mr Modi’s constraints are well-known. He has the unenviable job of keeping his government right of the BJP and left of the RSS. Mr Sharif’s handcuffs by comparison are velvet-lined. He owes his position now to no-one, other than General Raheel Sharif, whose army is divided between keeping right-wing militants beyond earshot of Islamabad and protecting the country’s borders.
Some hardliners in Pakistan suspect that the visit of the Indian Foreign Secretary Mr S. Jaishankar to Islamabad earlier this month was a consequence of President Barack Obama’s visit to India and to the non-visit of the Chinese president to Pakistan. They believe that both the United States and China have decided to act as prompters, coaxing India and Pakistan, if not to mend their fences, then at least to talk to each other through the holes in them.
The Indian Foreign Secretary’s visit could have been a useful occasion for determining a framework for future talks at his level. After all, there is still much left to discuss. Borders, for one. Both countries have the example before them of China. It shares borders with fourteen countries. It has resolved disputes with all but two of them, and one of those fractious borders is with India. Pakistan has a continuous thousand mile border with India, and yet two segments of it remain unresolved – Jammu & Kashmir in the north and Sir Creek in the south. To paraphrase Shakespeare, there is small choice in rotting apples.
Terrorism is another. Neither Pakistan nor India is prepared to genuflect before the other and to admit to sponsoring cross-border terrorism. And yet these sores are allowed to fester without the appropriate treatment.
Enhancement of trade between the two countries is the most obvious confidence building measure. Indian and Pakistani businessmen yearn to fill each other’s coffers. Yet Indo-Pak trade is treated by both governments as a weapon. It is the modern Gordian knot, kept deliberately tied by both countries.
If the Foreign Secretary’s visit was to prepare the ground for Mr Modi’s trip to Islamabad next year (he is scheduled to participate in a SAARC conference), then no harvest should be expected this year. Mr Modi is obviously in no hurry. His BJP is in alliance with PDP in Jammu & Kashmir. It has both the opportunity and the prospect over the next few years of consolidating BJP’s presence in the valley. He does not need to disinter the Shimla Agreement and engage Pakistan in bilateral talks over Jammu & Kashmir. Nor worry about United Nations’ resolutions.
Will strategists in Pakistan’s Foreign Office or in GHQ recognise that, following the recent state elections, a perceptible change has taken place in the political demography of that state? One suspects not. Platitudes, like worn shoes, fit tired feet more comfortably.
Should one expect any improvement in Indo-Pak relations between now and the next SAARC conference? Pessimists would say, No. Optimists would argue, Yes. Realists know better. They recognise that both countries through a policy of deliberate, diplomatic inertia, have reached a plateau in their relations. It is akin to the same nuclear stalemate that the Soviets and the Americans maintained for years before President Ronald Reagan trumped Gorbachev with his Star Wars gamble. Both blocs recognised then, as India and Pakistan shall have to one day, hopefully sooner rather than later, that their prohibitively expensive, ineffective nuclear weapons cost more than they are worth, that their ‘lances are but straw.’