Enigma and euphemism are not characteristics associated with an intensive session of brainstorming. However, both were witnessed at the Ideas Conclave in Islamabad last week. The event was sponsored by the Jinnah Institute and chaired by Senator Sherry Rehman.
The event sought to deliberate on subjects like Pakistan’s historical perspectives, its bilateral, regional and global power politics, and its climate security. There are few rivals to beat our fascination with star-gazing to figure where our relations with India could be heading.
It comes as no surprise then that out of the five thematic sessions, the one covering the perennial Pakistan-India standoff attracted greater attention. It also carried a euphemistic title: ‘The Eastern Question’.
The outcome turned out to be enigmatic insofar as it left more questions than answers. The armchair discussion was moderated by Nasim Zehra and historian Ayesha Jalal, Indian High Commissioner Ajay Bisaria, Pakistan’s former foreign secretary and high commissioner to India Salman Bashir, and Gen Nasser Janjua, the national security adviser to the former PML-N government participated in the session.
Ayesha Jalal lampooned the rulers of India and Pakistan for focusing too much on territorial aspects and made a bold suggestion to reorient the Pakistan-India debate away from a cartographical connotation – ie, border disputes – and shift it towards a more people-centric approach. She recalled Manmohan Singh’s idea that the sides can’t change the borders but could make them irrelevant.
This brought a counter question from Salman Bashir: can we escape the cartographic construct? The question playing on most minds being whether it was time for a ‘reconstruct’, he wondered if there was any political will to move forward. One way forward would be to set a date for the Saarc summit in Islamabad that might lead to a consensus on a new vision statement. In the short term, tensions can be reduced by easing travel across borders.
Bisaria developed the technical discussion further by suggesting a ‘space for discussion’ by removing hurdles in the way of talks. In his view, there was hope as relations had recovered from earlier setbacks and could surmount the existing obstacles. He plugged in India’s aims and objectives towards rapid economic growth as a means to move from the sixth largest to the fifth largest economy of the world. Bisaria argued that economic successes will drive India’s foreign policy. A glimpse was at hand when the Indian envoy painted the vision of increasing bilateral trade from $2 billion to $30 billion in a decade, and developing energy links between Central and South Asia across Pakistan.
Bisaria, who happens to be in Islamabad at a time when relations are going through a rough patch, personifies the astute envoy who avoids dogma and appears to look ahead. He based his optimism on the LoC ceasefire accord of May 23 and the resolution of the problem caused by harassing diplomats on both sides of the border. These steps have been accompanied by helpful statements by the army chiefs of both countries. The Indian high commissioner saw these steps as collectively representing ‘positivity’ in India’s relations with Pakistan.
Surprisingly, though understandably, no speaker questioned how the threshold of positivity had come down to this low level. It is simply difficult to ignore the fact that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his team have injected so much negativity into India-Pakistan ties that people in both countries now tend to look at normalisation as a lost cause. Therefore, to hear that some positivity had been engendered may sound like progress. But nobody underestimates the herculean obstacles along the way. And what could possibly be done if the BJP/RSS are content with wrecking any chances of reconciliation between the two countries?
Gen Nasser Janjua managed to add to the enigma at the event because he wasn’t inclined to share official secrets from meetings with his Indian counterpart. But he alluded to the need to rise above hostilities to better manage Pakistan-India ties in the future.
When further questioned by the moderator, he said that there was a basic understanding that both states couldn’t remain enemies forever. The ‘eastern question’, in his view, was a great construct. Yet, Janjua went on to concede that it was a difficult question with no answer, and one that could be an election-winning factor (in India?). The bilateral equation nonetheless had links with global power politics where the US considered China and Russia as challengers to its global pre-eminence.
Nasim Zehra concluded that nothing much could be achieved without political will on both sides. Former foreign secretary and high commissioner to India, Riaz Khokhar, who was invited to comment, lived up to his reputation of being a ‘hawk’ by asserting that relations with India suffered from “fundamental problems” that couldn’t be ignored. He raised the question squarely: is India ready to negotiate with Pakistan and take on board Kashmiris for resolving the Kashmir issue?
A reference was made to the prospects of improving ties at a time when the next generation is being taught animosity through the curricula. The ending was more like an anti-climax as the Indian envoy brought in the importance of ‘security’ and the need to eliminate “incidents” to create a proper environment to move forward. He proposed the need to start with humanitarian exchanges and eventually move towards to bigger issues.
Just like India portrays the resumption of talks as a favour to Pakistan, it is time for us to ponder what is in the talks for us. Speaking realistically, not much is in it for us when even humanitarian exchanges are treated as a favour. But then again, the Indian diplomat had the audience in near awe when he referred to a “new template free from history”, keeping in view the past mistakes. Another enigma?