India Pakistan: secret career of a dream

The mutual hostility between India and Pakistan has been around for so long that berating each other has become second nature to every pundit, journalist, analyst and talking head. You must have seen the show we put on for your amusement where our mouths are almost frothing, every syllable wrapped in shrill and death rays coming out of our eyes. But catch us off-guard when we are most uninhibited, relaxed, and you might be surprised how much each of us wants normalisation between the two countries.

I have often wondered why we fight and why we wish bad juju on the other. The answer invariably is that we have to. Because this is our source code, but this is the third decade of the twenty-first century. Our challenges are so immense that during Covid, natural disasters and economic crises, we could not see two feet ahead. Is it wise to lug around the burden of unresolved conflicts and hatred?

Until 2014 I thought I had a handle on things. That in the heart of the UPA government, there was a desire to set things right. To deescalate and build on whatever residual infrastructure of the peace process still existed. The only thing that stood in the way was weak resistance from the hawks and a pesky little national election. Once Congress returned to power with a strong mandate, things would become rosier than anyone’s expectations. I know it because I was in constant contact. But then, the hand of destiny overturned the chessboard. With Narendra Modi’s shock victory, a visible change materialised among our Indian diplomat friends. Those who could sit with you for hours tolerating and occasionally joining in as you joked about Congress’ leadership would suddenly go stiff, formal and even robotic when you said a single word disparaging Narendra Modi.

I don’t think I ever truly recovered from the shock. This cultural shift meant that where we could endlessly talk about peace on national television before, we would have to adjust to possible, if not probable, hostility from the other side. And on the first new year night of the Modi government, we saw the Indian media losing it while covering an alleged “terror boat” from Pakistan. That terror boat turned out to be a storm in a teacup. But this was a vivid reminder of how things were to be.

I must take you a bit further back. When I visited New Delhi and Mumbai for the first time, it was like a guided tour of an alternative reality. Same people. Except for religion same lifestyles. After an effort, I could spot one difference. The place of paan beedi shops and cold drink corners was occupied by the merchants of the hard stuff. The real difference, however, was the widespread realisation that India was already on the path to success. If memory serves me right, I remember being overwhelmed by all-pervasive warmth and affection. The simple question in my mind was also the same. Must we always fight? Why not hone this warmth, this love for the greater good? Sadly, the answer to that is still awaited.

I am no apologist for either side. I think persistent, elaborate mistakes were made on both sides. But most of it was before our generation had any say. Now that we can finally play a role in building bridges, the cultural shift in the two countries has made it impossible even to imagine such a thing.

Over a decade ago, I shocked an Indian diplomat by comparing the trajectory of the Pakistan-China friendship with the Pakistan-India relationship. The 1960s were the proverbial fork in the road. The claims of India-China “brotherhood” fell apart after the brief war between the two countries. China and Pakistan found an opportunity to resolve their territorial disputes. A robust strategic partnership then followed. Pakistan and India could not. But before the 1965 war, things weren’t as impossible. In fact, an Indian minister was the guest of honour in the 1965 Pakistan Day Parade. Can you even imagine that today? Yeah, I thought so. I only asked the ambassador what he thought would have happened if our two countries had settled their disputes at about the same time. After a short but shocked pause, he replied that the whole region and even the world could be a different place. Later I tried the same trick with Pakistani policymakers in khaki and civvies. With satisfyingly similar effects.

As I said earlier, I took a long time to come to terms with the reality of the Modi government. But I did when Pakistan was in lockdown, and India struggled with the Oxygen shortage in the Covid days. As I came across tweet after tweet announcing the deaths of friends and acquaintances I have known for ages or desperate pleas from their family members for Oxygen supply, I broke down. Life is a fickle thing, but it is too precious to be wasted on useless hostilities. Since then, I have strongly suggested the two sides find a path back to peace.

FM Bilawal’s Goa visit that concluded yesterday has reignited that dream of a better relationship in my mind. It was nearly impossible to expect anything more concrete on the bilateral front from a multilateral event. But at least it is a start. I know there have been many false starts, but I have reasons to believe that a breakthrough may materialise soon.

For one, too many mutual friends want the two countries to normalise relations. For two, the atmospherics are rapidly shifting. As India’s national elections approach the Modi government realises that war hysterias as vote getters are also bound by the law of diminishing returns. There is only so much that can be done short of an open war in that context. After 10 years in power, the image of Modi, the international man, nay statesman, of peace, may produce better results. Pakistan, too, can benefit from a normalisation of relations. I can’t be too sure of the exact timeline, but I have it on good authority, and that too from the other side of the border, to expect big things within the next six months. In Pakistan, six months could mean three different governments. But it looks like it might happen sooner than later because both sides will need time to really capitalise on the peace dividend. I can only wait and hope we finally find peace in the coming days.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 6th, 2023.


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