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by Samuel Baid

There is always relief when the top leadership of India and Pakistan decide to resume talks to solve the problems that impede the normalization of relations between the two countries.  Amid relations that have been marked by ingredients of a tragedy – direct or proxy war, hate campaigns and suspicions – such reliefs come as a comic relief.  And we know that a comic relief comes only briefly in a bigger nasty plot.

That is not to suggest that the India-Pakistan leaders, who agree for bilateral peace talks just as Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and Yousaf Raza Gilani have done in Thimpu (Bhutan) on the sidelines of the SAARC Summit, are comic characters.  No, they did so as responsible, sensitive leaders heavily pushed by the aspiration of mutual peace and cordiality of their respective people.  The Shimla Agreement of 1972 after the devastating war of 1971 was a great relief.  The Agreement was signed by the then very powerful political leaders – Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.  About Mr Bhutto, it was said that he, as the President, was more powerful than was the President of the United States.  Mrs Gandhi and Mr Bhutto, both visionary leaders of their time, signed this Agreement which the latter said replaced the era of confrontation with the era of cooperation.  But 38 years later, we feel the euphoria and thrill the 1972 Agreement created was nothing but a comic relief – to die once Mr Bhutto was over-thrown by his Army Chief Gen Ziaul Haq.

Then came another comic relief in February 1999 when the two powerful Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif signed the Lahore Accord.  Everybody was thrilled when Mr Vajpayee bussed to Lahore.  That broke the oppressive monotony of no-contacts between India and Pakistan, started by Benazir Bhutto when she became the Prime Minister for the second time in 1993.  The thrill of the Lahore Accord was very short lived.  Pakistani Army’s aggression in Kargil two months later and ouster of Mr Nawaz Sharif by his Army Chief Gen Parvez Musharraf later in the year killed the Lahore Accord.

The next comic relief came in January, 2004 when President Gen Musharraf made a promise to India’s Prime Minister Vajpayee on the sidelines of the SAARC Summit in Islamabad that Pakistan would not allow its land  or land under its control to be used against India.  This comic relief didn’t last long because the Musharraf Government did not do anything to prove that it was serious about this promise. Camps that trained terrorists for India continued to flourish in Punjab and occupied Kashmir.  The Government also did not do anything to curb the activities of exclusively anti-India groups like Lashkar-i-Tayyaba and Jaish-i-Mohammed, who despite ban on them, are operating freely under different names.  The Mumbai terror on 26 November 2008 was just an example of what these officially supported terror groups could do.  That the Pakistani official apparatus is not willing to act against such groups needs no emphasis in view of the well-known Establishment’s terror policy.

The Government of India may be sure that this time Pakistani Establishment’s traditional policy of stalling normalization of relations between the two countries will not be allowed to work by a Prime Minister whom the recently adopted 18th Constitutional Amendment  has empowered.  India’s Foreign Secretary, Nirupama Rao told newsmen in Thimpu, after the Manmohan Singh – Gilani meeting, that “the focus is on chartering a course forward so that the searchlight is on the future and not on the past”.

Anybody who knows Pakistan, also knows that a Prime Minister, howsoever powerful, is no stronger than a fly for the Army.  See, for example, the fate of powerful Zulfikar or Nawaz Sharif who had won the 1997 elections with an overwhelming majority.

But Mr Yousaf Raza Gilani is neither Bhutto nor Sharif.  What makes the big difference is the United States’ disinterest so far in destabilizing the political government in favour of the military takeover.  Both Bhutto (1977) and Sharif (1999) had to go because of the emerging US interest in Afghanistan and its need of the Pakistani Army.  Now the US interest in Afghanistan requires a stable civilian government in Pakistan.

In the present case, the US Administration would certainly not like to put its faith again in the Pakistani Army – not so soon at least.  And this is why despite a serious economic crisis, threats from the judiciary, law and order problem and the Opposition and the media campaign, the Gilani Government goes on and the Army, at its orders, remains engaged in operations against terrorists.

The Af-Pak policy of President Obama is being tried on secular democracy in Pakistan.  Destabilising the present secular civilian government would create problems for the United States in Afghanistan.  The Pak Generals, despite their dislike of the PPP Government, will dare not touch it unless they get a signal from Washington.  That signal is not coming when Mr Obama is the President.

The Present Pakistan People’s Party has already finished almost half (27 months) of its five-year mandate – with whatsoever difficulty.  Unlike in the past, President Barak Obama’s Administration is giving special attention to the long neglected social sector in Pakistan and this will certainly contribute to better quality of humans – and as a result, strengthen democracy.

It is also to be noted that though the 18th Constitutional Amendment has lifted the ban from fighting the Prime Ministerial election more than twice, Mr Nawaz Sharif is showing no zeal to campaign for mid-term elections.  That is, because it was his promise that he would not bring down the present Government, perhaps more correctly, he fears that he has many skeletons to hide.  Once the electioneering  free for all starts these skeletons will start tumbling out.

Thus, it would appear that the present Government will complete its five year tenure.  In other words, India-Pakistan relations can have smooth sailing if the present Government is not disturbed for the rest of its tenure.  But our past experience says that anything can happen, especially when the political stability in Pakistan helps India-Pak relations.  There are internal and external forces  with vested interests in India-Pak stand off.

Whatever the China experts may say, China does not consider India-Pak peace conducive to its economic and strategic aims.  Pakistanis have been worked up to believe that China is their best friend.  Now it is getting involved in dam projects in occupied Kashmir to create more problems for India-Pak efforts to normalize their relations.

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