South Asia Hand

Manmohan Singh and Asif Zardari: A Hopeful Encounter

Four months ago, Pakistani president Asif Zardari’s trip to Dubai for medical treatment sparked intense rumors of a military coup. Last weekend, Zardari lunched in Delhi with Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh and was photographed wearing a flamboyant turban at a renowned Sufi shrine at Ajmer in Rajasthan. What happened and what does it mean?

No one, least of all two longtime observers of the South Asia scene like us, expected to see India-Pakistan relations transformed by this Easter Sunday luncheon in New Delhi, the first meeting in a bilateral setting between the top leaders of India and Pakistan in seven years. But the brief summit session usefully highlighted the accelerating strengthening of ties over the past year or so. It also raised hopes that further progress can be achieved if the two sides persist in the sensible, unspectacular approach they have recently followed.

This welcome forward movement has been somewhat paradoxical. Since Partition in 1947, India-Pakistan relations have more often than not created problems that have undercut promising developments in both countries. Now, at a time when so many things have gone wrong in South Asia – and for U.S. interests in the region – improvement in ties stands out as a ray of light in an otherwise darkening scene.

The progress should not be overstated, however. The two sides have not scored a breakthrough on the key Kashmir issue or on any of the lesser, seemingly more soluble problems that have long bedeviled India-Pakistan ties. These include their continued armed confrontation on the bleak Siachen Glacier, brought back to the headlines by a horrendous landslide that buried over a hundred Pakistani troops there only hours before Singh and Zardari met.  New Delhi remains highly dissatisfied by what it rightly regards as Islamabad’s failure to cooperate in bringing to book the Pakistan-based perpetrators of the November 2008 Mumbai attack.  Islamabad, for its part, views with great suspicion New Delhi’s activities in Afghanistan. It fears they could lead to an unacceptable level of Indian influence there following the withdrawal of U.S. and other NATO forces.

The most impressive progress has been in economic cooperation.  The two countries have moved ahead – if somewhat erratically – toward establishing a most-favored nation regime that will substantially boost the notoriously low level of goods exchanged between them.  They are modernizing their archaic method of handling goods at border crossings, easing visa restrictions, and talking about oil pipelines and electric grid linkages. Indian and Pakistani businesspeople, long interested in creating a peace dividend, are discussing more seriously and hopefully than at any time in recent years the mutual advantages from increased trade and investment. If progress on this front continues, the business “peace lobby” could grow and strengthen.

The progress follows the decision of the two sides to move back toward the comprehensive dialogue between them that India broke off following the Mumbai attack. Cabinet ministers and senior civil servants now turn up regularly in one another’s capitals for formal meetings covering broad agendas.  These sessions have been supplemented by well-received visits in both directions of prominent parliamentarians and representatives of major trade and industrial organizations. Widely and favorably reported in the media, these exchanges have helped create an unusually upbeat attitude toward bilateral relations in both countries.

Favorable developments also include things that haven’t happened, the Sherlock Holmes dog that didn’t bark in the night. Since Mumbai, there have been no further significant attacks on Indian territory by Pakistan-based terrorist groups; Indian authorities have evidently resisted any temptation to blame Pakistan for incidents triggered by domestically-based organizations. Kashmir has remained largely quiet since the summer of 2010, when over one hundred youthful protesters were shot dead in Valley towns. Pakistani authorities continue to remind the world — and their own public — that the Kashmir problem still remains unresolved. But they have not sought to raise it or other potentially inflammatory anti-Indian matters to deflect their public’s attention from the major economic, social, and political problems the country faces. As in the past, the more favorable mood on both sides remains vulnerable to spoilers intent on wrecking India-Pakistan ties. Another incident like Mumbai would destroy it overnight.

Against this promising background, President Zardari’s meeting with Prime Minister Singh was a modest further step in the right direction. No concrete accomplishments were announced, nor had any been anticipated in what was billed as a late add-on to Zardari’s visit to the Ajmer shrine. The two leaders’ post-meeting statements were an exercise in blandness.  They called their talks “very fruitful” and spoke of their willingness to find “practical and pragmatic solutions” to the problems they had discussed. They offered no specifics on what they had said about these problems to one another, however.  Zardari did disclose that he had invited Singh to visit Pakistan. The prime minister avoided any concrete commitment: he said he would be very happy to go there at a mutually convenient time.

We hope that the mutually convenient time will come soon. An early official state visit would provide further momentum to these favorable trends. Like other formal summits, it could serve as an “action-forcing event” at which leaders break deadlocks their subordinates cannot resolve. Singh himself has long spoken of making the journey, which unwelcomed circumstances have forced him to postpone several times. Before Partition he had lived in what became Pakistan. A visit to Islamabad and to his ancestral village in West Punjab would contribute to his effort to make improved India-Pakistan relations a major part of his political legacy.

But any hope that such a more elaborate follow-up by Singh to Zardari’s brief venture could soon lead to a genuinely “new era” in bilateral relations is unrealistic. A breakthrough on Kashmir, still for Pakistan the “core issue,” requires the presence in both New Delhi and Islamabad of strong and confident governments prepared to make painful concessions and to take their constituents’ flak for doing so. Singh, now politically weaker than at any time since he took office in 2004, is increasingly viewed as a lame-duck whose authority can be safely flouted by other senior government leaders. He will not want to add further controversy to his many problems.

Nor, to put it mildly, will Zardari. Despite the evident recent strengthening of his political position and the likelihood, dismissed only a few months ago, that he will successfully complete his term as president and go on to a second one, he must continue to defer to the Army on matters of foreign and security policy, especially on something as central to its interests as relations with India.

The Pakistan Army, which was not represented at the Zardari-Singh meeting, has been willing to go along with the recent progress in bilateral ties. Some observers see this as recognition that it has too much on its plate already on the Afghan border, in countering an insurgency inside Pakistan, and in dealing with the United States. Others argue that it has finally acknowledged that national security importantly depends on a strong economy, and has recognized that this in turn requires improved ties with India. But it seems unlikely that either reason will prompt the Army leadership to favor an early major improvement in bilateral ties, with all the consequences this could have for its own role in national affairs.

The best plausible scenario is further limited progress spearheaded by advances in economic ties. This will create an environment in both countries in which other knotty problems can more effectively be tackled (or set aside). Senior commentator C. Raja Mohan likens this to the recent record of Sino-Indian relations, where booming trade between Beijing and New Delhi has set the stage for progress on other fronts.

The United States has had no direct role in these favorable developments in India-Pakistan relations, though as noted the deterioration of U.S.-Pakistan ties may have played some indirect role in prompting the Pakistan military to look more kindly on better ties with New Delhi.  (It has also given the Pakistanis a new target for their anger. Polling indicates that the United States is more unpopular now in Pakistan than is India!)  As always, Washington has cheered from the sidelines as advances were made. Its best strategy will be to continue quietly urging the two sides on, making suggestions where these can be helpful, but recognizing its limited influence in both India and Pakistan on this issue.