India-Pakistan ties: Forever in liquid oxygen

Everyone has heard that Ajit joke about punishing a scoundrel by dipping him into a vessel of liquid oxygen. “Raabert,” says Ajit to his assistant, “liquid isko jeeney nahi dega, oxygen isko marney nahi dega (the liquid will not allow him to live, the oxygen will not allow him to die).” The India-Pakistan quarrel is something like that. It will neither liberate nor overwhelm either country. It just survives from one regime to another.

The India-Pakistan dispute is not one between two countries, but between two communities. Prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru implicitly recognised this when he wrote to Lord Mountbatten on February 11, 1957: “I am quite sure that if the Kashmir issue was settled even to the satisfaction of Pakistan, our troubles with Pakistan will continue. The issue is a much deeper one.” Indeed, it goes deep into the sub-continental psyche and continues to linger there.

Illustration: Bhaskaran Illustration: Bhaskaran

A smart external affairs minister, in either country, is one who knows that the bilateral relationship is beyond the pale of diplomacy and one that is deeply political. A politically high profile foreign minister may pretend to be in-charge, but the smart ones are those who know where the buck truly stops. In India it stops with the prime minister, and in Pakistan with the leadership of the armed forces.

The world knows this, too. So when Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers or prime ministers refer to their bilateral relations in their address to the United Nations General Assembly, the assembled gathering yawns. They know that the audience for the on-going polemic is back home. That is why I have always believed that Indian leaders should not refer to Pakistan or the so-called “Kashmir dispute” in their speeches at the UNGA. Best to talk of terrorism in a regional and global context, and not just bilateral.

I asked an old Pakistan hand from the Indian foreign service what role diplomats actually play in shaping an essentially political and communal relationship. He saw the foreign office’s role as one of providing inputs and analysis for the political leadership’s consideration. The final call is political.

So, it is amusing to see some retired diplomats and foreign policy analysts bemoan the absence of diplomatic niceties or get all excited about empty gestures of courtesy when representatives of the two neighbours meet. Look, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj did not even shake hands with her Pakistani counterpart when they met in New York. Oh, the heavens have fallen!

While the bilateral relationship is at all times political and tinged with religious overtones, it becomes all the more so as elections approach. The famous Manmohan Singh-Pervez Musharraf dialogue of 2004 to 2006 ended not because of fundamental differences between the two, but because domestic political considerations forced Musharraf to back off. Manmohan Singh’s inability to pursue his first-term agenda into the second term was also because of domestic political factors.

As India goes into election season, the India-Pakistan rhetoric will become sharper. Anger may spill beyond rhetoric into action. The foreign ministry should have known that and avoided getting into this messy space at this time. Of course, the external affairs minister’s speech at the UN was part of election rhetoric, as indeed the letter sent to the Pakistan foreign office calling off an ill-advised meeting between the two foreign ministers. For the next eight months, the task for diplomats on both sides would be to manage the daily fallout of election rhetoric.

Baru is an economist and a writer. He was adviser to former prime minister Manmohan Singh.