An embarrassing obsession

Mirza Ghalib presciently captured the futility of India’s Pakistan-centric foreign policy in the following self-mocking verse he penned in the 19th century:

‘Maine kaha jo bazm e naaz, chahiye ghair se tihi
Sun ke sitam-zareef ne, mujhko utha diya ki yun!’

(‘I asked the sweetheart to evict the intruder from the boudoir. She acquiesced, and instead had me thrown out quite far!’)
The verse written a century before the two countries were created still depicts the way most world leaders have responded to
India’s unending petitions against Pakistan as Delhi seeks to check its own waning influence in Afghanistan and over its other quests including what has proved to be elusive access to a mysterious terror mastermind locked up in an American jail. This man has a Pakistani connection but is also believed to have worked for US intelligence. So that’s a big quandary.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s plea in Washington for “zero tolerance” for nuclear delinquents had Pakistan in its crosshairs. The cliché of zero tolerance is of course best applied to traffic rules. Its excessive emphasis for serious problems could convey the impression that all other issues have been settled, i.e. zero tolerance for terrorism, communalism, corruption, poverty, internal rebellions and so on.

To use a cricketing idiom the Indian prime minister’s appeal against Pakistan’s nuclear waywardness can be seen as a wicket-keeper’s ploy to distract the umpire from calling a wide ball. Nobody believes India’s nuclear weapons are not ill-gotten, or that under the terms of the NPT they are any more legal than Pakistan’s or Iran’s if it acquires them.

Kolkata’s Telegraph newspaper ran a Ghalib-like assessment of India’s habit of venting its spleen about its difficult neighbour to all and sundry. In a dispatch from Washington, where the nuclear summit was the main agenda, the newspaper’s correspondent counted at least 30 direct or indirect references to Pakistan by India’s foreign secretary Nirupama Rao in a briefing which should have been about global proliferation.

This was of course not Ms Rao’s fault. As India’s spokesperson at the Agra summit in July 2001 she faithfully followed a totally different tack on Pakistan only because then foreign minister Jaswant Singh was keen to walk the “high road to peace” with the neighbour. It was in response to the Indian media’s 13 questions in Washington, all related to Pakistan instead of nuclear worries, that the 30 references to Islamabad became perhaps inevitable.

The Pakistan-obsession may not be a problem of the Indian media alone. It runs deeper and is clearly more systemic. I asked a foreign ministry official in Delhi about the procedure for Indian journalists to get accreditation to the Saarc summit in Thimpu this month. My friend said with concern: “Good question, boss. We are going too slowly on this. I am sure the Pakistanis will land there with a huge delegation.”

Of course the India-Pakistan obsession is a mutually counter-productive element in South Asian diplomacy. Pakistan has its own bee in the bonnet with regard to India. Its leaders never tire of complaining bitterly about Delhi to anyone they can buttonhole.

On one occasion a high-profile listener didn’t know who the petitioner was and who the accused. On April 6, 1995, recalls The Telegraph’s correspondent, when Benazir Bhutto was escorted to the US Senate floor by the late Jesse Helms, he introduced her thus: “The Foreign Relations Committee has had the honour of welcoming the distinguished prime minister of India and I wish to bring her to the floor.”

With Benazir looking horrified, the Republican senator compounded the error by saying he had just completed “a delightful hour-and-a-half conversation” with the Pakistani prime minister and she was talking mostly about India.

Perhaps the most embarrassing moment for any sovereign country should be when a visitor tells its leaders how he or she was responsible for mending the host’s ties with their neighbours. And this is precisely what President Bill Clinton was allowed to get away with when he addressed India’s parliament in March 2000. To add to the embarrassment, fawning MPs milled around him to touch him after he told them tersely how he had helped India evict the Pakistanis from Kargil, not militarily as New Delhi claimed, but with America’s diplomatic help.

Similarly, does any Indian or Pakistani leader realise how ridiculous they look when they allow themselves to be shepherded to shake hands by their foreign hosts? Dr Singh has been prime minister for more than six years but there is nothing on the horizon to indicate that that he is planning a visit to Pakistan any time soon. He is, however, strangely happy to meet a Pakistani counterpart on foreign soil.

Not only this, the meeting often results in path-breaking pronouncements, more often than not to ease the tensions. Sharm el Sheikh and Havana come to mind where landmark decisions were made. Why not in Delhi or Islamabad?

A significant fallout for India in this attitude of Brahminical aloofness is the contradictory signals it sends to foreign interlocutors. It tells them on the one hand to assiduously avoid hyphenating India-Pakistan issues. On the other its diplomats and politicians spare no opportunity to snarl at each other in self-wounding public spats. To make it worse they then start to highlight the negatives of each other in witless conversations with a third party. There are several ways for India and Pakistan to develop a more mature policy regarding each other.

The most successful of these could be to listen to their people — not the TV watching sound-byte fanatics, but ordinary people who seek visas only to be cruelly denied them. These people want to move on to a durable and trusting relationship between their countries. Whatever be the grouse between their countries — terrorism, the water dispute, Kashmir or ways to find influence in Afghanistan — none of these could or should be resolved by foreign mediators.

Practically all visitors to Delhi are subjected to a routine question. Do they support India’s quest to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council? They all say it is a good idea. However, few go on to discuss the big impediment in this. How can one nuclear gate-crasher be offered the exalted seat it covets when it cannot conduct a simple dialogue with a nuclear neighbour without being nudged by others?

If the leaders of India and Pakistan cannot find the courage to take the first step, they should go back to Ghalib’s simple sagacity. Why should any of the two countries grovel before Washington or any other capital? How about learning from China or Russia or Venezuela or even Iran on how to keep their dignity and be a global player.

Courtesy Dawn ( jawednaqvi@gmail.comThis e-mail address is being protected from spambots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it )