Friday, May 30, 2014

Searching for Parity (through Partitions)

Here is the million dollar question. If Modi can develop a first-rate economic relationship with China, will he be able to pressurize Pakistan (via China) to sue for peace? The future picture will be more clear, if we make a careful evaluation of the past, why and how we have arrived at this bend of history.

To expect India to make ‘concessions’ to Pakistan when this country is caught in such dire straits is to be naïve. India would rather add to our miseries than bend. Let’s get it straight: whatever the government in power in New Delhi, India has no intention of resuming meaningful talks with Pakistan — Mumbai and terrorism being useful, ever-green pretexts. 

Looking back, what was the primary cause behind the South Asian partitions? It was primarily because opposing elites were seeking parity with respect to each other (not just independence from each other).

If one considers Partition I in South Asia in an unbiased manner then it appears that Nehru (representing Congress) unfortunately made a few terrible mistakes. He was a Fabian socialist and was impatient to run the country HIS way. Religion as an ornament was fine by him, but (we presume) that he was put off by Hindu as well as Muslim precepts as something backward (if not outright evil) and deserving to be put in the rubbish bin.

Nehru's mistake was two-fold: at a theoretical level he misjudged the appeal of muslim nationalism (he thought he was more popular amongst muslims than Jinnah!!!), and at a practical level he underestimated the antagonism and mistrust felt by both sides meaning there was a total absence of trust. Muslims simply did not trust Nehru that there will be adequate safeguards in India for them to lead life in their own way, AND a pathway to parity. Parity meant equality of privilege. And parity was something that Nehru was unwilling to give.

Partition I happened not just because muslims in South Asia were looking for a homeland for themselves, it happened because they felt that they deserve parity with the Hindus of India. For historical reasons it was never possible to imagine a situation where Pakistan < India. This is the reason Pakistan always has had a subservient relationship with the USA (and subsequently China and Saudi Arabia), because only with these nations as allies can Pakistan hope to achieve parity with India.

Partition II also happened because Bengalis were looking for parity (with Punjabis). The thinking was straight-forward, culturally, scientifically, Bengalis were equal or even superior to Punjabis. Economically, Pakistan was beholden to jute from the East and the jute money was being spent disproportionately in the West. Only in military prowess the Bengalis were lagging. And to seek parity in this sphere the Bengalis turned to India.

The powers that be in Pakistan made (unfortunately) the same mistakes that Nehru did a few decades ago. They underestimated the appeal of Bengali nationalism and they did not grasp the level of mistrust between Bengalis and Punjabis. When Bhutto made the offer for parity, it was too little, too late.

Indeed we believe that the secularism (plus) model as adopted by Nehru and the Congress and applied to India was because of the belated realization that you cannot demand trust from your sworn enemies, you can only hope that with time, the change will come from within the community. Thus while Nehru joined hands with Ambedkar and blew up existing Hindu society with the Hindu Civil Code, for muslims his answer was (now in opposition to Ambedkar) that as a community they are simply not ready. This is why we have (constitutionally) Uniform Civil Code as a desirable goal but something that will never be implemented (not even BJP has the willpower to do it, though they will use the resentment to catch votes). In this sense having a personal code is also an imperfect declaration of parity. 

When people talk of secularism in the Indian context it is a search for parity in as many spheres as possible. Mindless application of this principle however can lead to policy incoherence. As an example take the case of minority educational institutions. While all mainstream organizations (with a few notable exceptions) must obey the standard 50 (general) + 50 (quota) reservation policy (for students and faculty alike), the MEIs do not have to follow this rule. In this way the MEIs are able to guarantee a few seats for Christians, Muslims etc. but the overwhelming composition is forward caste!!! How is this anyway fair and useful??
During the first decades after independence Pakistan was indeed superior to India by most measures. India was a poor country trying to experiment with imperfect democracy, while Pakistan was being run by the military (leading from the front or from behind) with an efficient bureaucracy and fueled by a powerful, unifying, ideology.

The impact of ideology was most clear in the way the two countries played cricket (and also hockey), especially against each other. Pakistan has always been blessed with rare talent, but due to the lifting power of ideology Pakistanis managed to rise even above the sum of their talents. India on the other hand mostly played below par (this has changed of late). Gandhiji's statement of Hindus being weak and Muslims being strong was exactly a reflection of the respective ideological strengths.

In the long run however this search for muslim (now explicitly Sunni Punjabi) parity seems headed for the quick-sands. It is not just that Hindus out-number Muslims, it is that elite Hindus out-number elite S-P Muslims. Further, the way the partitions and the aftermath have played out, elite Hindus can now co-opt muslims to fight against muslims (see Kargil war) but the reverse is not possible. This is the exact opposite of what happened during the glory days of Islamic rule when Akbar had a galaxy of Hindu generals (and Hindu soldiers) fighting against the Rajputs and the Marathas. 

To his credit, Bhutto recognized this when he talked about eating grass in order to fund a nuclear weapons program (which will provide parity in face of a much larger Indian army equipped with conventional weapons). The jihadi army would then act as a force-multiplier and this is how we get to parity (+). 

But as is clear from the cold war experience, this equality seeking exercise in the military domain is bound to exact a terrible penalty in economic (hard power) as well as the cultural domain (soft power). And a Pakistan which is weaker economically may not be able to withstand the pressures emanating from an economically dominant India. Most alarmingly, the economic partnerships that India now may choose to develop with China, USA and even the Middle East may outweigh (or at the least counter-balance) the strategic relationships these countries have with Pakistan.  

When we reach that point (and we feel it is inevitable), the battle for parity will be lost. Perhaps it is already lost (only historians will be able to tell for a few decades time).

‘STRUCTURED talks’ is a piece of nonsense that was first heard in the South Asian context possibly in the ’90s. Since then, the talks charade between Pakistan and India has assumed many nomenclatures — peace process (God bless Henry Kissinger for coining this phrase), ‘composite dialogue’ in the wake of Vajpayee’s visit to Islamabad to attend the Saarc conference in 2004, and — thanks to Hina Rabbani Khar — ‘not only uninterrupted but uninterruptible’ dialogue.

The prime minister’s adviser on foreign affairs Sartaj Aziz now adds the prefix of ‘re’ to make it an impressive-sounding epithet — ‘restructured talks’. The result is India’s unqualified victory in refusing to talk turkey, thus freezing the Kashmir issue.

Statements made on Wednesday by the two foreign policy managers now stand out in contrast, one by Mr Aziz; the other by the Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj; the latter has substance brimming with confidence bordering on arrogance; the former’s a poor attempt at claiming success which is not there. The latter was blunt to the point of crudity, mercifully after the visitors had left the former full of diplomatic clichés and inanities and pleading for the process to be “restructured and updated”.

Two points highlighted Ms Swaraj’s policy statement, made not at a press conference but given to the Press Trust of India (PTI), the official news agency, showing her eagerness to clarify the BJP government’s policy with regard to Pakistan in the wake of the swearing-in ceremony on Monday and the meeting between Nawaz Sharif and Narendra Modi.

We do not know the sequence in which the Indian foreign minister spelled out the BJP government’s priorities in the realm of foreign affairs, but going by what appeared in print she spoke first of Pakistan — in the most bullying style — and then concentrated on how India would project itself to the world. It is the latter part that is significant and gives an inkling of the ‘big power’ status that has been the obsession of Indian leaders and strategists from the founding father Jawaharlal Nehru and Subramanian to this day.

As paraphrased by the PTI and reported by our New Delhi correspondent, Ms Swaraj said her priority would be to ‘showcase India’s strengths to the world and improve relations with neighbouring countries, strategic partners, Africa, Asean member countries, Europe and others’. India’s strengths — yes, the plural. 

Indeed, India has many ‘strengths’ to flaunt, not only the size of its territory and population but the breakthrough it has made in economy and the efforts it is making to have a military-industrial complex.

Slowly but to good effect, India has begun to act on the advice of its friends in the West. How long will you remain bogged down in your obsession with the infinitely small Pakistan? If you want China status, have a higher vision, go beyond Pakistan, treat your western neighbour with contempt, think of greener pastures, and do what Ms Swaraj aptly did with all seriousness on Wednesday — ‘showcase India’s strengths to the world’.

Against this ‘showcasing’, consider her advice to Pakistan whose prime minister had met hers a day earlier — “stop terrorist activities”, because talks get subdued in the “din” of bombs. This then is Pakistan’s status in her eyes and this in a nutshell is the outcome of the prime minister’s visit to New Delhi.

Finally, we have to note what most Pakistani commentators miss. India has no reason to give relief to Pakistan, knowing well that this country is in a nutcracker situation. Half the army is either already bogged down in the west to combat the Taliban or is perhaps mobilising more troops for an operation. Balochistan is in the grip of a low-intensity insurgency. The economy is in a shambles. Blasphemy and YouTube are national issues. The ISI, one of the world’s most powerful and resourceful spy agencies, is waging a war of its own against a media group by mobilising mullahs.

Development activity has ceased to exist in three of the provinces. There are polio restrictions on Pakistani travellers. Afghanistan is breathing down our neck. America and the West consider us little better than an exporter of terrorism. China has expressed behind-the-scenes concern to Pakistan over the situation in Xingjian, and the state’s writ is absent not only in Fata but in many other areas too.

To expect India to make ‘concessions’ to Pakistan when this country is caught in such dire straits is to be naïve. India would rather add to our miseries than bend. Let’s get it straight: whatever the government in power in New Delhi, India has no intention of resuming meaningful talks with Pakistan — Mumbai and terrorism being useful, ever-green pretexts.