The aspiration for peace is frequently detained by expectations and, ergo, definitions of what peace means. In India and in Pakistan, the idea of Indo-Pak peace ranges from redemption to retribution; often cradled in unfulfilled promises and unhealed wounds. Along the way, the competing compulsions of conflicting definitions of what peace must deliver defeat the process of peace.
The idea of peace is best defined by Ronald Reagan. “Peace,” he said at a college in Illinois in 1982, “is not absence of conflict. It is the ability to cope with conflict by peaceful means.” There can be no wrangling about Reagan’s comprehension. When he came to power, few had expected success. When he left, “Rawhide”, as Reagan was code-named by the US Secret Service, had dismantled Soviet Marxism and redrawn the world order. The moot point is Reagan focused on the promise of peace.
On Friday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi bet on his instincts and paid a “surprise” visit to Lahore to greet Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on his birthday at his ancestral home near Lahore. A whirlwind of speculation about the “spontaneity” followed even as the chopper took off from Lahore Airport. Clearly, in diplomacy and in politics, even spontaneity must be planned and well executed. And it was!
In a first of its kind, the two Prime Ministers signalled uncommon bonhomie travelling together by car and in air in the same helicopter—a Pakistani one at that. There is no disputing the shock and awe in India and Pakistan—and among those whom geopolitical ornithologists call hawks and doves. Naturally, the optics of the grand statement, the visuals of Modi and Sharif walking ‘hand-clasped-in-hand’ triggered a wave of expectations and, in the age of Instagram and instant gratification, a search for outcomes. Did the quest for peace travel further?
It is early days yet. The two leaders planned and executed the visual grandiloquence with clear tactical objectives as part of a larger strategy. Regardless of the outcome, the high-voltage imagery adds to their political capital at home. The manner in which they have managed the engagement—kept the outrage brigade from both sides in the dark—reflects mutual understanding and is a signal. Clearly, the element of surprise is a favoured weapon. The challenge now for both leaders is to keep hope afloat and manage the narrative on the promise of peace.
The promise of peace is incalculable. The endless conflict has cost Pakistan and also India. Pakistan has a GDP that is just around 10 per cent of India’s $2-plus trillion. The consequence of high military spending is reflected in indicators—it ranks 147 on the UN human indicators. Savings are poor, unemployment levels are high, investment is low—FDI, despite market potential, averages around $ 2.5 billion. It suffers from low per capita health expenditure; infant mortality rate is as high as 65 per 1,000 births. It suffers from shortages of both electricity and gas.
Peace would enable investments, tourism and expansion of market access, triggering the virtuous cycle. For India, peace would facilitate access to resources—gas, oil and minerals—and to markets in Central Asia. Indeed, the steel mill owners in the news could well set up mills in Afghanistan or Pakistan. Peace would promote focus on governance on both sides of the border. It would also foster the idea of a common market across South Asia. The case for peace driven prosperity can be argued ad infinitum.
Will the opportunity be leveraged? Success of any engagement depends on the context. The nudge-to-talk efforts of the US government are only too apparent—from the parade of visits, ranging from John Kerry to Antony Blinken across the subcontinent, to the invited and self-invited visits of Nawaz Sharif and Raheel Sharif to Washington. The script of the big game in Central Asia is changing in the wake of technology—as also post the nuke deal with Iran. There is also the context—the changing contours of wants in geopolitics. The rise of ISIS, the economic crisis in oil-exporting countries, worries about Pak nuclear arsenal, and the global approach towards terror groups spawned by radical Islam are catalytic factors.
Can Sharif and Modi shift to the next orbit? The good news is that the military industrial complex, which enforced the decoupling of the state from the nation in Pakistan, seems on board. The success of the NSA meet, the clearance for TAPI gas pipeline project, and the success of Sushma Swaraj visit are all feel-good signs. Engagement also needs persona. Modi, unlike Manmohan Singh, has the political capital, but will be tested. Nawaz has been a protégé of the Zia regime and a subscriber of his doctrine. He has had a confident year politically and is looking to consolidate. The big IF is whether the coalition of the radicalised in Pakistan will allow Nawaz to succeed. There is also the threat of expectations—the K Factor, D Factor, S Factor, H Factor and so on.
The history of Indo-Pak relations does not augur well for euphoria. It is scarcely possible to underestimate the difficulty of the task. In theory, peace between nations must be an enduring goal, not a tactical phase in continuing conflict. But that has been the history of Indo-Pak peace talks.
Every euphoric wave—beginning with the Rajiv-Benazir meet—has receded into disappointment. Nawaz Sharif himself has been involved in many—he has met with every prime minister since Chandra Shekhar. There could yet be a general in the barracks who could intervene and repeat history. Success will depend on how well expectations are corralled. The best bet is to aim for containment of conflict as the primary goal and build on it.
Shankkar Aiyar is the author of Accidental India: A History of the Nation’s Passage through Crisis and Change