Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (Photo: http://www.infopak.gov.pk/primeminister.aspx)
Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has expressed some laudatory sentiments about the need for friendly ties with India.
In a message telecast over a Pakistani news channel, Sharif said,"Let us make a new beginning. Let us sit together to resolve all outstanding issues in a friendly manner and in a peaceful atmosphere.”
That is a perfectly welcome and unexceptionable sentiment. I think so too.
But then, he also said this, "We must become good friends. Hold each other’s hands. We must sit together with a open and clean heart." The two countries might yet become good friends but for them to “hold each other’s hands” is not practical. For one, the ratio of handholding between a country of 1.2 billion people and one with some 185 million people works out to be roughly one is to seven, or one Pakistani having to hold roughly seven Indians’ hands. For another, there is far too much cholesterol on either side of the India-Pakistan border for hearts to be “open and clean.” So those details will have to worked out. Other then that, it may be worthwhile giving Sharif a chance to make good on his approach.
As Pakistan celebrates its independence day on August 14 and India on August 15, it is easy to get caught in the sanguine optimism of the occasion. Unfortunately, it is always short-lived. The space for such optimism has become constricted to such an extent that leaders of both countries with a genuine wish to put to rest over six decades of animus find it impossible.
Twenty years ago when I met Sharif in Lahore he was bursting with similar optimism about friendly relations with India. The words he used while talking to me were “aman aur khulus” (peace and openness). To his credit, he has not given up on that approach. The problem is he has to live and work inside an ecology of deceit and paranoia that sustain entrenched forces whose whole survival depends on upending peace and openness.
After the recent killings of five Indian soldiers by the Pakistani troops in the Poonch sector, the mood within India’s political establishment is not particularly conducive to holding each other’s hands. While the ruling Congress Party of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh still maintains that talks are the only option, the predominant political opinion, or at least the loudest variety, is vehemently opposed to it. It is still not clear whether Sharif and Dr. Singh will meet on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly next month. Purely rationally, it makes little sense for the two to not meet. Nothing is achieved by not talking.(Excuse the double negative but we are talking India and Pakistan here). On the other hand, what has been achieved by talking either?
Unless the two countries find enough strength within their own systems to make dramatically bold moves and gestures to overcome decades of near visceral distrust and disillusionment, I doubt if incremental steps would lead anywhere. Perhaps one way is to remove from the bilateral equation the “we are one people divided by history” non-sense. We have tried that for decades and it has only aggravated relations. Perhaps the right approach would be to put aside familial emotions and tackle each big item on the bilateral agenda in a professional, businesslike fashion. It is from that standpoint that I remain skeptical of the “holding each other’s hands” approach, especially because the ratio is just not right. It is time to rescue India-Pakistan relations from the fractiousness and emotionalism that informed our 20th century discourse and give them a calmly rational treatment.
It serves no purpose casting our relations in emotional, fraternal terms. This particular bilateral diplomacy needs to be wholly reengineered in a manner that both sides clearly identify a list of five or so big ticket issues and resolve them without resorting to sentimentalism.