Indo-Pak Watch: Mr Singh's problems

NEW DELHI — They met, they shook hands and they penned a joint statement at the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Movement summit meeting in Sharm el Sheik last month. For anyone watching, such camaraderie between the prime ministers of India and Pakistan seemed a welcome break from the tension following the November 2008 Mumbai attacks launched by Pakistan-based militants.

In the aftermath of that attack few Indians — in government or among the public — felt warmly towards Pakistan.

But even eight months later, the offering of an olive branch by India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, to Pakistan caused a maelstrom in all sorts of circles in the Indian capital. The prime minister’s offense? Not just shaking hands with his Pakistani counterpart, Yousaf Raza Gilani, but releasing a joint statement that riled up New Delhi for its casual mention of two issues.

First, action on terrorism, the statement read, should not be linked to dialogue. This just after a high court in the Pakistan released Hafiz Saeed, believed to be the mastermind of the Mumbai attacks.

Second, the text contained a veiled reference to Indian intelligence activity in Pakistan’s restive province of Balochistan, which critics argue is equal to an admission of involvement in Pakistan’s internal affairs. But when Parliament convened, a senior member of the main opposition party declared that, “all the waters of Neptune will not wash away the shame of Sharm el Sheik.” It’s hard to know where this reaction leaves the Indo-Pak relationship, especially since India and Pakistan seem to see things through polar lenses. Still, a prime minister’s sincere efforts to confront the conflict, seen here as a blunder most unkind, may in fact do some good.

“He wants peace, we appreciate that,” said Retd. Gen. Ved Malik, former chief of Indian armed forces. “But we are not talking about two individuals here. We see no change in the jihadi infrastructure in Pakistan.”

Security analysts agree. “How much can you go on ensuring your good faith, only to have Pakistan come back with some idiotic adventure, something that serves their internal dynamic but doesn’t do anything to advance peace in the region?” asked Bharat Karnad of the Center for Policy Research, a think tank in New Delhi.

Terror aside, much of the debate in India has revolved around Balochistan, where a separatist movement has long been underway. Pakistan has repeatedly alleged that India is destabilizing it by assisting separatists, a claim that has been ignored next to the long charge sheet against Pakistan.

Almost everyone in India sees the inclusion of Balochistan in the joint statement as an enormous faux pas. “If, as the PM claims, India is doing nothing in Balochistan, why give it away?” Karnad asked.

It’s widely believed in India that Indian intelligence action in Pakistan ended in 1997 when Inderjit Gujral, then prime minister, ordered a cessation of activities conducted by the Research and Analysis Wing, or RAW, India’s prime intelligence agency.

Pakistan’s accusation is seen here as propaganda. Moreover, Indian analysts insist that RAW is incompetent next to its much more powerful counterpart, the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence, or ISI.

“Over the years, the entire India-Pakistan situation has been simplified to the good guys wear white hats, the bad guys wear black hats,” said Jug Suraiya, a political commentator and op-ed columnist whose liberal views earn him plenty of hate mail. “We consider ourselves pure martyrs. It’s a very juvenile attitude.” India and Pakistan have gone to war three times already, in 1948, 1965 and 1971. Three border conflicts over land and water have remained unresolved 62 years after partition and independence.

The Indian prime minister has often expressed his desire to see a change in the angry, sub-continental relationship. In early 2007 he famously stated that he dreamt of a day when “one can have breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore and dinner in Kabul.”

Has the recent commotion weakened the prime minister? Unlikely.

“He is deeply committed to India’s economic and social development,” Suraiya argues. “He does bring in fresh ideas. I think he realizes that one of the problems India faces is its obsessive relationship with Pakistan, and he feels it should be a more constructive engagement.”

Outside the brouhaha over Sharm el Sheik, the prime minister is likely one of the most respected citizens of India, and one of the most respected Indian citizens in Pakistan. He has seen India through its greatest economic reform yet, signed a commercial nuclear energy deal with the Unites States and is on the hunt for a solution to a conflict as old as modern India.

From Amritsar to Delhi to Kabul on a one-day food binge isn’t likely to happen in Manmohan Singh’s lifetime, but it’s a goal future generations of South Asians will likely applaud.