Casting Indo-Pak Bilateralism around Internal Dilemmas

There is a need to discuss the existential problems facing Indian democracy and Jinnah’s dream of a Pakistan in a dialogue between the two countries. If we can’t provide answers to them, then any core issue dogging them will remain a topic to rehash old press releases on peace


By delving extensively into the political experiment launched by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Rajmohan Gandhi might have appeared to some in the room to have sidetracked the India-Pakistan dialogue he had himself helped set in motion in Delhi.

After all there were experts from both sides from relevant fields — military, business, media, diplomacy — bracing to offer last week’s confabulations the benefit of their distilled wisdom. But here was Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson going into raptures about a political party he had only recently joined, and of which he is a candidate in the ongoing parliamentary race. Indiscreet? No.

Quite a few in the two-day meet, organised jointly by Sherry Rehman’s Jinnah Institute and Gandhi’s pacifist Centre for Reconciliation and Dialogue, thought they were shortchanged.

Gandhi was advertising the virtues of his party when the agenda for the meeting was to share the intricate perceptions and recommendations of two nuclear neighbours on issues bitterly dividing them. Track II is what they call these meetings, not without an air of self-importance. So there was no time to waste.

However, what Gandhi did succeed in doing in discussing his common man’s agenda at a seemingly odd forum was to focus on the dire need of bringing domestic impediments to peace up for discussion rather than bury them conveniently because no one likes to take a public position on ‘internal affairs’ in a bilateral get-together. Domestic issues are rarely discussed in such forums. Has the rise of Muslim extremism in Pakistan impeded or facilitated normalisation of ties with India? Should the conference not have discussed the problems facing Pakistan internally?

Internal problems in this regard are distinct in my view from the ones posed by the anti-state Taliban. The Taliban bring a set of global challenges, and that is not something Pakistanis would be averse to discussing with Indians.

A truly existential dilemma for Pakistan comes in the form of lawyer patriots showering the fanatical killer of the Punjab governor with rose petals, for example. Or take some equally nationalist judges who accept the point of view of extremists as valid and worthy of empathy. How does this internal equation play out in the conduct of foreign policy not just with India, but also with Iran, Saudi Arabia and others?

Likewise with Hindutva. In India too you would find pro-Hindutva lawyers with the rose petal syndrome. Here too you would face the bureaucracy and the police with more than a handful in their ranks siding with the country’s fascist strides. Will a Modi administration in India, assuming but not conceding he will make the grade in the upcoming elections, mean a change for the better for ties with Pakistan, or will it be plain bad news?

The AAP is bitterly opposed to Modi’s candidature for the top job for a variety of sound reasons — including corruption and communalism. And, though he has conveniently played down his anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan vitriol during the current election campaign to woo the gullible and well-meaning fence-sitters, the world knows that Modi is the very antithesis of Atal Behari Vajpayee’s preference for moderation. Vajpayee too was a Hindutva mascot but he was not any fanatic’s poodle.

In any case, regardless of his differences with the neo-fascist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Vajpayee found himself leading his nuclear-armed country to the brink of a potentially catastrophic war with Pakistan in 2002. It required massive international lobbying to defuse the crisis.

There was a view expressed at last week’s conference by mostly Indian interlocutors, that India’s foreign policy was too institutionalised for there to be much of a difference no matter who heads the government. In other words, had Modi been in charge of the country instead of Vajpayee, goes the argument, he would have taken the same militarist sabre-rattling course. I think the outcome would have been rather worse.

In any case, the suggestion that India’s foreign policy, or equally its defence policy, is written in stone makes for a specious claim. For Modi and Vajpayee, to whip up a militarist posture would be coterminous with their domestic political calculations. They bring out the baser instincts in the name of Indian nationalism.

Rahul Gandhi’s politics is no different. On his part, he leans on his notion of history that glorifies his grandmother as the one who wrecked Pakistan in 1971. And he does that without the street power to work the people up into a froth. Moreover, he is not right-wing enough to benefit from his occasional jingoism.

Before saying anything in Rajmohan Gandhi’s behalf on the subject, consider how AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal put it when he was asked to comment on ties with Pakistan.

He asserted not once but twice, since the TV anchor was persistent, that relations with Pakistan would be no different than with other neighbours of India. “We are for friendly ties with all countries, big or small, especially our neighbours.”

Gandhi shares that view to the hilt. Who says there won’t be a change in the policy regardless of who rules the country? It’s clear as daylight that Gandhi brings liberal perspectives to foreign policy which Modi does not.

There is a need to discuss the existential problems facing Indian democracy and Jinnah’s dream of a Pakistan in a dialogue between the two countries. If we can’t provide answers to them, then any core issue dogging them will remain a topic to rehash old press releases on peace.

-the writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi

-by arrangement with