Depressing Signs From The Subcontinent

by Isaac Chotiner | August 5, 2009

The New York Times had a dispiriting story this morning about the latest diplomatic negotiations between India and Pakistan.

After months of tension over the attacks in Mumbai last November, in which gunmen from Pakistan rampaged through India’s financial capital and killed more than 160 people, the two sides seemed open to the possibility of resuming full-blown talks.

Instead, the mere suggestion of a thaw in relations has been met with fierce public and political resistance in India, providing a nagging reminder of the enormous internal obstacles that both countries face in overcoming their decades-old rivalry.

Indian Prime Minister Monmohan Singh met with the Pakistani prime minister last month. Much of the criticism currently directed at Singh concerns his decision to include--in a post-summit "joint statement"--the Pakistani claim that India has been stirring up trouble in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan. 

The reaction from the Indian press, as the Times story notes, has been overwhelmingly negative. In a surprising editorial in the Indian newspaper Mint, the business sheet's editors write:

What needs answering are the Prime Minister’s motives and the timing of what he is doing...

Today, nearly 50% of India’s gross domestic product is linked in one way or another to what it trades with the world...The fear here is not from globalization but from being denied a slice in the global march. It also means that when Mumbai-like attacks occur on Indian soil, they dent investor confidence badly...

In this context, the Prime Minister could well argue that that is precisely what his intention is in going forward with Pakistan. But remember, as argued above, this is a knife-edged argument: It could take a different, and detrimental, course in a flick. Pakistani impatience allows it to exploit India’s economic success. The Prime Minister has indulged in a huge gamble. Let’s hope it does not cost India dear.

The problem with this argument is that it avoids explaining how the prime minister's "gamble" would lead to trouble for India. Even more depressing is the point made by Jug Suraiya in an excellent op-ed for The Times of India.

But the reaction that [talks have] provoked has brought one aspect of Indo-Pak relations to light: namely, that it is not just Islamabad, but New Delhi as well which has a vested interest in maintaining what might be called the static quo between the two countries...

Both countries need a whipping boy in each other to keep their respective constituencies in a state of diversionary fear. The ruling establishments in both countries in Pakistan, the army and the feudal political class; in India, our netas, babus and mediacrats find it not just convenient but necessary to keep alive the image of an ill-intentioned neighbour who can be used to whip up nationalist emotion, often at the expense of rationalist thought. Unrest in Balochistan? Blame it on India. Militancy in Kashmir? Blame it on Pakistan. 

Kashmir is key here because India's militaristic rule of Jammu and Kashmir would be unsustainable without Pakistani provocations. There was a lot of commentary after India's May election that the voters had been extremely wise to deliver Singh and his Congress Party an even greater mandate. That was probably true, but the latest developments are a clear sign of how distant the prospect of peace remains. 

--Isaac Chotiner

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