The reality principle

By Pratap Bhanu Mehta

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.

We also need to reflect on the sheer limitations of the instruments we have to deal with a state like Pakistan. American policy, with its billions of dollars and penchant for militarisation, has had relatively little success in two of its core objectives: counter-terrorism and non-proliferation. All that policy did was redirect the violence, not contain it. America will once again have to continue to cosy up to the Pakistani military establishment. Heightened tension between India and Pakistan will paradoxically legitimise this cosying up even more. Our own experience is also worth reflecting on. A big war triumph in 1971 did not lead us to winning peace. On the contrary, we still are coming to terms with the fact that a wounded and sulking power is an even more dangerous, mercurial and elusive beast. The consequences of Operation Parakram are still hotly debated; whether it sent a strong signal or undermined the credibility of our threats is still an open question. But the way it unfolded violated the cardinal rule of showing force in international relations: you had better be sure that what you do will yield results, not send a signal that you are about empty threats. Third, given how cheap machismo is, it always bears repeating that both India and Pakistan are nuclear powers. We also know that the possession of nuclear weapons limits conventional options. It is to the credit of Indian leaders, from Vajpayee to Manmohan Singh, that while recognising the necessity of these weapons, they have never flinched from understanding their enormity. It is often said that our risk averseness has become a millstone around our neck. It allows Pakistan to inflict damage without fear of retaliation. This argument is more complicated, but on the whole, we are safer with risk averseness than escalations whose logic we do not understand.

This is particularly true because no matter how much outrage and helplessness we feel, our actual appetite for war is very limited, and in their hearts, most political leaders know this. Indian democracy’s finest hour was not to succumb to any hysterical temptation in the face of 26/11. As much as it tried, the BJP could not politically capitalise on it. It is in this context that Sushma Swaraj’s loose talk, besides being irresponsible, is politically stupid. It makes her appear less trustworthy as a custodian of power, not more. You could argue that we have made a virtue of necessity: simply renamed weakness as restraint. But once in a while our cautious prudence deserves more credit. It is a source of strength that has, all things considered, served us much better than illusions of force peddled by self-styled realists.

Give the prime minister’s realism a little more credit. He has talked to Pakistan. Exaggerated rumours notwithstanding, he has not given away anything. This realism, following Vajpayee, has changed the international discourse on Kashmir. We have a long way to go. But it has given us the best chance we have had in decades of restoring some normalcy to Kashmir. It is such realism that has increased the asymmetry between Pakistan’s and India’s standing globally. Of course, we need options to deal with a situation like this. And our governance problems are gnawing away at defence capabilities. But it is not clear that stopping talks, trade or civil society relations gives us any more options. This engagement will give you more options in the future not less, which is why the Pakistan establishment abhors it. As that realist Bismarck knew, realism is about playing a long-term game of chess, not about the self-destructive Charge of the Light Brigade.

The writer, president of the Centre for Policy Research, is contributing editor, ‘The Indian Express’,

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