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Between the line

Can Obama break the status quo?
November 17, 2010


“India’s prosperity and integrity depends on the prosperity and the integrity of Pakistan.”

These are not the words of President Obama, but of former BJP Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee who wrote this line in the visiting book at the Minar-e-Pakistan, the venue of the Pakistan resolution in Lahore. However Obama used more or less the same words – Pakistan’s stability was in the interests of India. He was replying in Mumbai to a girl student’s question why America had not declared Pakistan a terrorist state.

Although Obama said that the perpetrators of the 26/11 attack on Mumbai must be brought to book, he did not satisfy Indian opinion which wanted him to name Pakistan. Apparently, there must have been some pressure on him when he came to Delhi and met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh because, while addressing the joint session of parliament, Obama said that terrorism emanating from “safe havens in Pakistan is not acceptable.”

Still he refused to take sides and said categorically that both India and Pakistan had to settle problems between themselves. I think that Obama should have stuck to his original guarded stand because he must stay credible in Pakistan to have leeway in that country, specially when American forces are combating terrorism in Afghanistan with the active help of Pakistan. Even then he maintained a balance between India and Pakistan. When asked about Kashmir at the joint press conference he said that it was a “dispute” pending for a long time. America did not want to impose a solution, but was willing to play a role if both India and Pakistan so desired.

He was more categorical when he touched upon Myanmar and Iran. On the first he was disappointed by India’s policy of wooing Yangon and on the other he expected India to come on his side in “punishing” Iran.

The reaction from Pakistan reflects its uneasiness over some of Obama’s remarks. Although Foreign Minister Quereshi has said that Islamabad and Delhi should jointly destroy shelters of terrorists in Pakistan, there has been no response from India. President Zardari has also said that he would not allow his soil to be used by terrorists against any country. But this is an exercise which Islamabad has previously gone over. Delhi has remained cool.

Probably, what Manmohan Singh said at a joint press conference in Delhi that he was not afraid of discussing even the word “K”, but found it difficult to do so when the “terror machine is active as before.” Very few will find fault with what he has said. Yet what India should appreciate is that probably Pakistan is not in a position to deliver 100% on terrorism. After all, its cities, one after another, have been attacked by the terrorists, killing dozens of people.

One may argue, even justifiably, that it was the Pakistan establishment – something confirmed by former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf – which initiated terrorism that has become a Frankenstein. How does it help now because the genii of terrorism are not going to return to the bottle? Whether Delhi or Islamabad likes it or not, they have no alternative to equation between the two.

Once upon a time Bangladesh provided shelters to the terrorists against India. But since the return of Sheikh Hasina the sanctuaries have gone. Islamabad has to do something similar and more credible to fight against terrorism to make Delhi believe that the Pakistan government was doing its best. On the other hand, Manmohan Singh should realize that terrorism is not like a tap which can be shut. Otherwise, Prime Minister Gilani would not have requested him to separate terrorism from the talks.

Both had agreed to this at a meeting at Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt last year. Strong public opinion in India did not allow the prime minister to follow through. Yet the impasse has to be broken. Perhaps the talks can start on small matters as Obama has suggested and India can make it clear to Pakistan that problems like Kashmir would be taken up only when Delhi feels confident that Islamabad was seriously tackling terrorism.

In its own interest Delhi would have to make some concession to Islamabad to help it resist more pressure from an ever more powerful China. Otherwise, the region might become a victim of the new Cold War between Washington and Beijing, New Delhi supporting the first and Pakistan the second. Both India and China are two giants which have to be kept away from the point of clash. An Indian regional leader, Mulayam Singh, has already warned Delhi against war with China, “at any time.” The whole region can become a theatre of hostilities and destruction and a Third World war cannot be ruled out if a process of conciliation between India and China does not get underway.

Pakistan has some influence over China. I remember that a Foreign Secretary in Pakistan once told me that the road from Delhi to Beijing goes through Islamabad. Therefore it is incumbent on Pakistan to try to bridge the gap between Delhi and Beijing. It is an open secret that China has not only put its claim on Arunachel Pradesh but also on parts of Jharkand and Ladakh. Some incidents of forcible occupation by China in these areas have been noticed but deliberately ignored by Delhi in the larger interests of keeping the peace. But it is an uneasy peace if the two sides do not come to accept some firm rules and guidelines on the border’s inviolability. Jawaharlal Nehru similarly kept China’s assertiveness under wraps for some six years before the Indian public came to know about it. Still there was a war between the countries in 1962. Pakistan can play a role to ensure that they do not follow the same path of hostilities.

Pakistan was a bit hasty in criticizing Obama for supporting India’s candidature for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. After all it supported its two-year membership only last month. Pakistan is itself a candidate next year when another non permanent seat becomes vacant. Islamabad should be happy that another permanent seat is coming to Asia. I concede that this kind of attitude can come about only when the two countries have buried the hatchet. How long will the peoples in the region have to wait for that development to take place? Already 63 years have gone by and the basic problems of hunger, health and education still remain unresolved. They have even fought three wars resulting only in more misery, more frustration and more helplessness.

Fundamentalism takes root in countries which do not think beyond the limitations of enmity and hatred. That is the reason that both countries are increasingly prey to it. If they want to depart from the status quo, they have to begin talking to each other. It is only then that the peoples in the region may begin to dream again.

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