January 2004 News

After Half A Century, A Moment For Optimism

9 January 2004
The Guardian

One acronym, but with two meanings, sums up the possible futures of the Indian subcontinent. Is it to be IT for information technology, symbolic of the region`s potential for economic integration and growth, and of the role one state is already playing, and which others could also play, in the world economy? Or is it to be IT for international terrorism, for that merging of internal and external extremist forces which was seen in Afghanistan, which threatens Pakistan, and which could conceivably lead to war, perhaps nuclear war, between the region`s two major states? That was in essence the question in Islamabad this week when south Asian leaders met for a summit which ended with the decision to create a free trade zone as the first step toward an economic union.

But that aim, with all it assumes about the values set on trade and the prosperity it can bring for the nations of the region, only makes sense if set alongside the other decision made in Islamabad. The leaders of India and Pakistan committed themselves there to a comprehensive dialogue on the problems that divide them, including their quarrel over Kashmir. Two generations have had to live with the fact that, although the need to end the hostility between India and Pakistan which has bedevilled the life of the subcontinent was obvious, the will to do so was always lacking, on one side or the other, and usually on both. This attempt may fail, as earlier efforts did. But what has changed, and which may this time increase the chances of success, is that the stakes have mounted and continue to mount. What in the past led to conventional war could now lead to a nuclear exchange.

And what in the past led to the dismembering of one state could now lead to the ruination of both. Even short of the worst outcomes in terms of inter-state violence, the maintenance of huge defence programmes could break the back of the struggling Pakistani economy and hamper India`s economic growth. Above all, what is at stake is the survival of the moderate establishment in Pakistan. The inherent strength of Pakistan`s educated middle and upper-middle classes, so similar in many ways to their Indian counterparts, and of the institutional framework of the country, may be underestimated by some pessimists.

But the fundamentalist and Islamist forces present in Pakistan are also strong. It is not only the existence of such forces but their connections with more legitimate political movements and their ambiguous relationship with the authorities that is, or has been, a problem. That the Pakistani security forces have made use of them in both Afghanistan and Kashmir is not in doubt. The very fact that Pervez Musharraf has been so equivocal in his dealings with some of the groups concerned, vowing to suppress them at one moment and then allowing them to re-emerge under different names at another, is indicative of the problem. Unless and until there was a different way of pursuing Pakistan`s objectives in Kashmir, an absolutely decisive confrontation with the extremists, as opposed to episodic harassment, was difficult.

This is what the Islamabad agreement may now have provided. The two attempts on Musharraf`s life in December may have steeled a new resolve and influenced his dealings with India at the Islamabad summit. They were staged, however, when it was already clear in which direction he was going, both in rapprochement with India and in cooperating with the investigations into the transfer of nuclear technology from Pakistan. What Islamabad ideally could bring for Pakistan is a combination of the symbolic and the material. The one would be represented by a sense that progress on Kashmir, although likely to be slow, is now possible; and the other by the hope of better economic days because of the establishment of a full trading relationship with India.

MJ Akbar, the well-known Indian editor and commentator, puts it with characteristic flair when he says he is optimistic that the `age of economics` has finally arrived in south Asia, while the `age of ambiguity` over extremism is ending. The broader context was one in which the US, because of the strategic importance of Pakistan in the campaign against terror, was pushing both governments in a way it had never done before. The US was seconded by China, which urged Pakistan to follow its own policy of letting normalisation of relations with India precede the settlement of territorial disputes. The Europeans added their voice.

External and internal logic coincided, yet this rapprochement is not without its ironies. It has been the work of an Indian government dominated by the Bharatiya Janata party, with its militant Hindu tendencies and connections, and of a Pakistani general who was in charge when the Kashmir conflict recently almost became a full-scale war. But in each case there were countervailing factors. Musharraf, although seen by Indians as responsible for an aggressive Kashmir policy in the past, is in social terms a moderate and a moderniser, and intelligent enough to see that the old ways were less and less workable after September 11. Whether his recent domestic manoeuvrings show him cleverly legitimising his position or isolating himself more than before is a matter of opinion. But there is no doubt the course he has set means he needs a better relationship with India and the promise of progress on Kashmir. This is part of the new start for Pakistan and the subcontinent that he has proclaimed on numerous occasions, and if policy has lagged behind rhetoric, it may now be catching up.

In India, the prime minister and BJP leader, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, had believed ever since the party came to power that a settlement with Pakistan was the most important of India`s foreign policy objectives. It became his ambition to achieve it before he left office. The communalism which Vajpayee has always personally seemed able to avoid, but which his party has not, could have been a serious obstacle. But the party`s recent shift to a greater emphasis on prosperity rather than on Hindu identity has helped reduce that prospect. The slogan `electricity, roads, water` brought the BJP satisfying victories in state elections and has encouraged it to fight this year`s general election on similar lines, perhaps also bringing the election forward to this spring.

That would allow it to take advantage of the favourable economic situation and to go to the polls before the spring thaw reveals whether or not incursions into Kashmir had stopped as promised. The problem is not that the Indian government anticipates a failure by Musharraf to keep his word, but that a successful rogue operation could have an effect on popular attitudes in India. Such calculations illustrate how fragile the Islamabad achievement is. A major terrorist attack or, worse, the assasination of the Pakistani leader, could upset it. But Islamabad is good news, if half a century late, and this is a moment when optimism should have its day.


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