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Old Tuesday, August 04, 2009
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A new beginning?

By Shahid Javed Burki
Tuesday, 04 Aug, 2009

THERE have been few such moments before — moments when the different countries in South Asia may have seen national and regional interests moving them in the same direction.

Such a moment may have arrived in the summer of 2009 when, with the establishment of democratically elected administrations in the three large countries of the South Asian mainland, the conflict-torn area may be able to work towards regional cooperation and eventually towards regional integration.

Governments responsive to the wishes of the citizenry are more likely to give more weight to economics than administrations dominated by the military. For a considerable part of their respective histories, Bangladesh and Pakistan were directly or indirectly ruled by their armies. Since the armed forces did not have to gain and retain power through elections they were not compelled to give economics — and, therefore, poverty alleviation and improvements in income distribution — much consideration in the way they governed. Sometimes the quest for legitimacy made the military governments adopt policies they believed would win them favour with their populations.

In the context of much of South Asia, the anti-India stance was such an approach. This was adopted with enthusiasm by the military-dominated countries. It was justified at least in the case of Pakistan by the belief that India still had not accepted the creation of a separate Muslim state as a legitimate aspiration of a large segment of the population of British India.

The other important development in the region was the realisation that religious extremism and the focus on ethnicity as a basis for nationhood posed a real threat to the long-term interests of the people of South Asia. While the Islamists are currently at the forefront of the use of violence against both the state and ordinary people to promote their interests and agendas, other religious extremists have also been active in the region.

The threatened encroachment of Hindu extremism on the Indian state was checked by the elections of April-May 2009 in India that unexpectedly gave a much larger margin of victory to the secular Congress party and to Manmohan Singh, the party’s candidate for premiership. This may prove to be a defining moment for the evolution of secular democracy in India.

The Pakistani elections of 2008 may also prove to be as much of a turning point in the history of South Asia. In Pakistan’s case, the military was shown the door and it is likely to stay out of politics unless something even more dramatic happens than the decision by Islamabad to use the military to defeat the extremists in the country. The Sri Lankan military’s triumph in the long struggle with the Tamil separatists and the support it received from the people is an indication that there is a limit to tolerance in the pursuit of ethnic rights.

With these and other events, South Asia may have begun to turn the corner, moving away from a total adherence to the pursuit of national interests even at the cost of doing damage to the region’s long-term prospects. Should the meeting at Sharm El Sheikh be viewed in this context?

If the short statement issued after the meeting is to be read as the shape of things to come, New Delhi seems to be correctly reading the change in the mood of the Pakistani population and the course the elected representatives wish to take.

Given Pakistan’s precarious economic situation and the strong desire of the people to have their economic problems urgently addressed, there is a growing sentiment in the country that a hard stance towards India will not yield any reward. On the other hand, it would further burden the economy that is already straining under many pressures. People are doing a cost-benefit analysis and seem to have concluded that the balance is in favour of a major improvement in relations with India. Unfortunately the same can’t be said about the sentiment in India.

It is in India’s interest to reach out to Pakistan and restart the process for solving some of the major issues it has with its neighbour. Without bringing a degree of tranquillity to the region, India’s ambition to be regarded as a major global power would be difficult to achieve. Its leadership must have realised that while Pakistan may have initially encouraged the jihadists to balance India’s enormous superiority in conventional arms, the strategy backfired. The Islamic extremists that once had the support of the state have turned on the state itself.

The human cost to Pakistan of this misadventure is a multiple of that borne by India because of the attacks for which responsibility has been assigned to these groups. Both countries would undoubtedly benefit if the persistent tensions between them were eased. By doing so they would be removing one of the causes the jihadists have espoused.

The Sharm El Sheikh pronouncement is a subject of extensive analysis on both sides of the border, particularly in India. Considerable attention has been given to it for two reasons: one, because Manmohan Singh agreed to delink the dialogue on the issues that have created mutual tension from Pakistan’s attempts to bring Islamic extremists under control; and two, because of the reference to Balochistan in the joint statement. Several serious Indian analysts have chided their prime minister on these two positions.

The fact that the Sharm El Sheikh meeting was on the sidelines of a summit that involved a large number of leaders from the developing world, points to an interesting — and disturbing — fact about the nature of the relationship between Islamabad and New Delhi. Such meetings should not be held on the sidelines of other meetings but should feature prominently and regularly between the leaders of the two countries.
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