Gamble or be damned
By M J Akbar
In India Today - Byword
Srinagar's Lal Chowk was a destination for the BJP's Republic Day agenda, but not an objective. The BJP was sending a message to India rather than Kashmir, which it did effectively enough thanks to the caravan of cameras that is in statutory attendance around any drama. Once the curious harmony of military drumbeat and popular-culture rhythm in the January 26 parade is over by noon, it becomes a slow news day. The BJP's tricolour wheeze got screen-to-screen coverage. Point made.
Parties in power often need the crutch of ambiguity; being forthright might be quite the wrong thing to do when you are trying to squeeze a negotiated calm out of ongoing confrontation. A Prime Minister like Dr Manmohan Singh has a natural tendency to rise above the normal play of interests. In fact, both Government and Opposition are acting out what is essentially a charade on Kashmir. Their play is tactical rather than strategic because, despite their differences, neither can see much beyond the present. The BJP is comfortable with a dead-end horizon, because it is fixed on the status quo as a solution, and will fight aggressively to project itself as guardian of this interest.
Dr Singh is uneasy about the inherent instability in irresolution, but is helpless for two reasons. There is no clarity about where to go, how to go and with whom to go forward. He is walking on a long, lonely road, with shifting and even shifty companions. He cannot afford to be certain about Pakistan, which must travel alongside, albeit at some distance, for anything to change for the better. With the best will, Pakistani leaders may be unable to cooperate on a route that has been waylaid by three wars, and is regularly invaded by pirates and terrorists.
Survival is the first duty of any politician, and this means that he cannot wander too far from the policy limits set by public opinion. But Dr Singh, like his predecessor Atal Bihari Vajpayee, also has to assess and factor in the variables of managing his own party. The Congress is not interested in winning the Nobel Prize for Peace. It would much prefer another term in Delhi to a place in history.
A bad agreement between India and Pakistan is immeasurably worse than no agreement; and so far there has been no pact that has been equally cheered by both sides. The surface may seem placid in the event of a non-event, but dormant passions spit out like lava when agreement is reached through compromise.
Field Marshal Ayub Khan, author of the 1965 war, could not survive the Tashkent Agreement of January 1966 because he had promised his people triumph and ended the game with a draw. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, chief theorist of that war, became a hero when he betrayed his mentor, Ayub. Lal Bahadur Shastri would not have received too warm a welcome back home either in 1966; but he died suddenly just after putting his signature to the Tashkent pact. Bhutto made it known to Mrs Indira Gandhi at Shimla in 1972 that he would not be able to return home if he accepted the Cease-Fire Line in Kashmir as the permanent boundary. She conceded the point, with consequences that engulf and enrage us today.
There seem two unhappy options. Nothing can change in Kashmir except atmospherics. Or there is a "settlement" that either dresses up the generational Pakistani demand for the "liberation" of Kashmiri Muslims from "Hindu rule" with fudge; or changes the existing map in Pakistan's favour: try selling the first in the Pakistani bazaar and the second in an Indian mall.
Those who do not learn from history, we have been advised, are condemned to repeat its follies. India and Pakistan may be suffering from too much history. Generations change quickly in power; at best they last a decade. Each new incumbent, glowing with good intentions, hallucinates about writing the future on a clean page, and then inlaid stains within the paper seep through and blot the message.
Pessimism is boring when you are young, but at least it is not fatal. Optimism can be heartbreaking. Equally, it is arid and pointless to live without hope. So what do we do about this trap that has become coated with poisonous rust? Doing nothing is not an answer.
Maybe what India and Pakistan need in Delhi and Islamabad are not two dynamic politicians but two compulsive and courageous gamblers.