The just concluded visit of Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee to Islamabad (May 20-21), and the tenor of domestic developments in both India and Pakistan over the past week, suggest that many opposing impulses are at play in both polities and that astute management of these multiple contradictions will hold the key to nurturing stability in the troubled bilateral relationship.
The Mukherjee visit was important in that it was the first high-level political contact by the United Progressive Alliance government with the newly elected civilian dispensation in Pakistan and while no major breakthrough was expected - the commitment to the composite dialogue process agreed to in January 2004 by the Vajpayee-Musharraf communiqu' was reiterated. Both sides repeated long held positions as regards terrorism and the 'core' issue of Kashmir respectively and made modest progress on issues of consular access to prisoners and increased communication links - matters that will be further pursued in July in keeping with the incremental nature of the bi-lateral talks.
Most importantly it was announced that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would visit Pakistan in the course of the year - and this would indicate that some degree of substantive progress is expected on a few major issues that are deemed 'outstanding'.
It merits recall that the Mukherjee visit took place against the backdrop of the Jaipur terrorist tragedy and while it is encouraging that there was no familiar finger-pointing, the reference to India's concerns and expectations as regards terrorism that flow from the January 2004 agreement were highlighted.
Interestingly, the Pakistani leadership noted that terrorism was 'a common menace' that had to be 'fought jointly' and the Jaipur attack was roundly condemned by Islamabad. Notice must also be taken of the Mukherjee-Pervez Musharraf meeting where the Pakistani president chose to stoke the 'core' issue of Kashmir even while extolling the virtues of conflict resolution through appropriate confidence building measures (CBMs).
But even as the carefully orchestrated India-Pakistan bilateral contestation over terrorism and territoriality (read Kashmir) was being played out, the civilian government in Islamabad had concurrently concluded an agreement with Islamic militants - who had taken recourse to relentless terrorism - in the scenic Swat region - and ceded political control to buy peace.
The most significant element was the acceptance by Islamabad that the Shariat - or Islamic jurisprudence as interpreted by the Taliban - would be imposed in the region. In essence a certain degree of de jure political acknowledgement has been accorded by the Pakistani state to a de facto socio-religious writ that has been championed by the non-state entities along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. That this code is in violation of the Pakistani constitution only underscores the enormity of the appeasement policy that has been adopted.
Significantly this negotiated truce with the religious militants cum terrorists comes even as there is intense turmoil within the domestic politics of Pakistan. The Pakistan Mulsim League-Nawaz (PML-N) led by former Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharief has pulled out of the nascent coalition government it had joined with the Asif Ali Zardari-led Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and there was speculation that the PPP would make common cause with General Musharraf. The reinstatement of the judges deposed by the general in March 2007 has become a potential lightning rod and it is still not clear how this logjam will be consensually resolved among the major political parties who had come together in the run up to the February elections to oppose General Musharraf.
Even as the speculation grew about new alignments in Pakistan's tumultuous politics and the consolidation of power by an astute General Musharraf, the latest development is the position taken by Zardari as regards the Pakistani president. In a wide-ranging interview to an Indian new agency (May 22), he made the following caustic observations: "Musharraf is a 'relic of the past'; Pakistani people want Musharraf out of power; doffing the uniform does not make Musharraf a legal president; the proposed constitutional reforms will curtail the president's powers, including article 58 (2b)."
This frontal attack on General Musharraf is a sharp departure from the kind of conciliatory policies that had been adopted by Zardari since the February elections and his pursuit of a consensual transition in the power grid of Pakistan - as opposed to the radical transformation that others like Nawaz Sharief had advocated. The immediate fallout of this Zardari articulation has been murmurs from the Musharraf camp that such political brinkmanship could lead to the Pakistan Army coming back into the political domain - and this augurs ill for the much heralded nascent return of civilian rule in Pakistan.
But it is equally significant that the Zardari interview made some very radical observations about the relationship with India which include inter-alia: "If the bilateral relationship can emulate Germany and France, then Pakistan can be a 'force-multiplier' for India; Pakistan with its land and water resources can feed India and the world; PPP and PML-N want to do away with visa restrictions for India". Along with this heady rhetoric, reference was also made to Kashmir with an explicit suggestion that India reduce its army deployment in the region and replace this with a large police force - if need be.
The multiple contradictions and the inherent complexity in the internal developments in Pakistan raise a number of imponderables for India. Is the Pakistan military which has sought a truce with the religious extremists along its western flank truly committed to curbing similar constituencies along the Indian border? Will the Zardari-led PPP be able to weather the politico-military storm that is gathering momentum in Pakistan? Will the moderate-liberal spectrum in Pakistan be strengthened or intimidated for voicing a new security discourse and national identity? Where do Musharraf and Sharief stand apropos jehadi fervour? And finally what posture will the Pakistani state and its military adopt in the US-led war against terror in its territory?
This tangled conundrum comes even as the UPA government is taking stock of its four years in the saddle in Delhi. The fragile nature of the coalition and Manmohan Singh's limitations in taking certain bold political initiatives suggest that extreme caution and adherence to the prevailing status quo will be the preferred norm. Sagacity perhaps lies in the Indian ability to assess the emerging contradictions within Pakistan for their abiding structural implications as far as the security and strategic strands of the bilateral relationship are concerned and evolve commensurate holistic policy initiatives. But then the current domestic political debate in India has shown little consensus on the interface between foreign and security policies.
(C. Uday Bhaskar is a well-known strategic analyst. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)