The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Back in Pakistan last week after a gap of two years, I found myself back again on the familiar terrain of everyone wanting to know whether this time it is for real — or whether we are once again chasing chimeras. To demonstrate national solidarity, I, of course, told them it was for real, but given the inconsistencies, contradictions and backtracking that have characterized the Vajpayee government’s Pakistan policy over the last five years, frankly, I have no faith at all that this lot has what it takes — the grit and determination, the agility and stamina — to move decisively towards a sustainable solution.

I see no forward movement till about August, when the two new high commissioners would be in place and sufficiently seized of their responsibilities to start fuelling the engine. However, given that five key state assembly by-elections are scheduled for November and a general elections for fairly early next year, talks about talks would have barely got under steam before the current dispensation becomes a lame duck government.

If to earn his niche in history (before the next elections consign him to history), Atal Bihari Vajpayee starts forcing the pace, then the disaster which overtook Lahore and Agra will overtake this initiative too. For unless the ground is most carefully prepared and labouriously cultivated, a summit should not be held. Indeed, the longer the dialogue is spun out, but constructively spun out, the more effective will be the build-up of the atmospherics for the substantial concessions which will have to be made by both sides for a conclusion to be reached which would be durable. Any other kind of solution would be wholly pyrrhic and would set us back decades as it unravels, as it inevitably will.

So, what we are seeing, or ought to be, is stage-setting. That in itself is vital, for the structuring of the talks will decisively influence the outcome. I explained my reasons for stressing this in “Mani-Talk” two weeks ago. It is the government which comes to power in the aftermath of the next Lok Sabha elections which will have the advantage of early days to bring off the “final settlement” envisaged in the Simla Agreement.

So, while the sherpas pack their gear to set up base camp, what is the condition of the Pakistan we must soon start engaging with' First, the good news. The Pakistan economy is at long last being pulled out of the rut into which it had fallen. So much so that in fiscal 2002-03, they have overtaken India’s rate of GDP growth for the first time in a decade. Of course, this has less to do with any brilliant performance on their part than with the dreary economic record of the Vajpayee government. Nevertheless, their close on 5 per cent GDP growth has resulted in double-digit increase in per capita income. It reflects an economy on the mend. Most Indian strategists think a Pakistan in the economic dumps is an easier Pakistan to negotiate with than a Pakistan with a resilient economy. I beg to differ. Growth gives confidence. And it is only a self-confident government in Islamabad which would have the strength to make the compromises which are a necessary component of finding answers to impossible conundrums.

Also, Pakistan the pariah is now back as a global player. For the first time ever, it has completed an International Monetary Fund structural adjustment programme without faltering mid-way. In Pervez Musharraf’s one thousand days, foreign exchange reserves have zoomed from one billion dollars at the time of his coup to upwards of $ 10 billion at present. Much of this, as in India’s case, comes from remittances and reflects a vote of confidence in Pakistan’s future by the huge Pakistani diaspora. The economic fall-out of the renewed Islamabad-Washington axis is less in terms of aid from the United States of America than in terms of the NRP — the Non-Resident Pakistani — putting his money where his aching heart is. As for the international business community, their estimate of the relative worth of the Indian and Pakistan economies is shown up in foreign direct investment in Pakistan, running at $ 4 billion annually, just about the same as it has been for the far larger Indian economy.

Pakistan as a “failed state” is thus a figment of the yearnings of a certain kind of editorialist and columnist, the kind preferred, unfortunately, by the establishment, which touts the line that Pakistan’s proxy war on India has bled the Pak economy white. Rubbish. They are on the up and up and quite capable of sustaining indefinitely their low-cost support to cross-border terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir. That is why a diplomatic settlement is all the more necessary.

For the bad news from Pakistan is political rather than economic. The immense gains made by the religious parties (whose clerics have since banded together in a coalition called the Muttahida Majis-i-Amal) has taken them to government in the North West Frontier Province and Baluchistan. This talibanization of the two provinces closest to Afghanistan — the direct backlash of US ham-handedness in the region — is the most dangerous development in Pakistan since it was conjured into existence 56 years ago. For the first time ever, as the incisive Pakistani academic, Professor Khalid Ahmed put it at the seminar I went to Islamabad to attend, “Pakistan has always experienced ideological pressure from the well-organized religious parties in the past, but it will now experience the added pressure of representation.”

There is no escaping the significance of this. For, whereas in the past, the Jama’at-i-Islami rarely took beyond two seats and a handful more went to the clerical parties (Jamiat-ul-Islam/ Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Pakistan and so on), this time round, “the MMA has emerged as the third largest group in a hung national assembly.” The leader of the MMA was indeed a serious contender for the top post and any further accretion in their strength could well bring a clone of Mullah Omar of the taliban to the head of the Pakistan government (with, doubtless, his own home-grown Osama bin Laden in tow).

This would be disturbing for India, but a tragedy for Pakistan. Which is why forestalling further gains by the MMA, which feeds on a jihadi policy in Kashmir and elsewhere, makes it imperative for Musharraf and his colleagues to find a solution for Kashmir before the Frankenstein’s monster they and the Americans have spawned turns around and devours them.

I spent nearly three hours with my Cambridge college-mate, Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri, now propelled to unexpected eminence as foreign minister of Pakistan. I think he is serious and sincere in wanting to find a solution which will endure. I only hope Yashwant Sinha has it in him to match the moment.

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