Noted American journalist and academician, Stephen Kinzer, nailed the Pakistani truism when he noted, “Most Pakistani politics is conducted within a narrow spectrum. Politicians spend much time debating the best ways to fight India, or take Kashmir, or dominate Afghanistan, or punish the United States for its real and imagined sins”.
If any one element of the Pakistani ‘establishment’ were to stray from such an inflexible formulation, then the other pieces of the multilayered ‘establishment’ would rein-in the digression from the existential path. Take, for instance, Lahore Bus journey initiated by former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a move that intrinsically delegitimised ‘hate’.
The bus-diplomacy almost ushered in portents of peace with Vajpayee’s words, “Hum jung na hone denge….Teen bar lad chuke ladayi, kitna mehnga sauda….Hum jung na hone denge..”(We will not allow a war, we have fought thrice and it was an expensive outcome…we must not allow another war) and pacified the imagined ‘hate’.
The sage words were oblivious of the lurking intent of the military leadership of Pakistan, who were already planning Kargil, as peace overtures were dialed up by the civilian politicians.
The Devious Music of Pakistan’s ‘Establishment’ Orchestra
Intrigues within the ‘establishment’ are so deep rooted and fraught with layers of vested and often contradictory interests, that the left hand does not know what the right hand is up to.
The famous line said by the extraordinarily devious General Zia-ul-Haq to his 10th Corp Commander, Lt General Faiz Ali Chishti, to whom he entrusted the task of staging the coup d’état (ironically, called Operation Fair Play) was ‘Mursheed, Marwa Na Daina’ (Mentor, do not get us killed!) needs to be recalled.
This, when Lt General Chishti was not senior to General Zia, and this when General Zia had been singing hosannas in favour ofthe civilian leader Zulfiquar Bhutto, whom he deposed, shamed and hanged. Later, even Lt General Chisti was unceremoniously brushed aside).
In all recent moves and countermoves, the quartet of Pakistani ‘establishment’—in the order of importance: Military, Civilian Politicians, Clergy and Judiciary—have checkmated each other to ensure that the Pakistani narrative stays within the confines of Stephen Kinzer’s description.
The only times when there has been some semblance of course-correction from the laid script has been when it has been enforced by unavoidable international pressure which can overrule the ‘establishment’. For example, FATF (Financial Action Task Force, a global terror finance watchdog agency) mandated arrests of people like Masood Azar. Or perhaps for setting up exclusive beer factory—so much for Imran Khan’s much touted Riyasat-e-Medina—for Chinese staff working on the China-Pakistan-Economic-Corridor (CPEC).
Trial Balloons To Assess New ‘Peace-With-India’ Policy’s Acceptance
Other than such-like pressures, the ‘establishment’ is routinely left to letting out trial balloons to ascertain the acceptance of any policy deviations, new-beginnings or compromises, before committing itself to any new trajectory.
The realm most susceptible to these trial balloons is the pitch for peace with India, which remains the foremost galvanising war cry to unite disparate voices and enflame dangerous passions, against whosoever suggests a meaningful thaw in Indo-Pak relationship.
Irrespective of the dispensation in power, the stridency of ‘anti-India’ line automatically accrues to the opposition of the day – who could alternatively be PPP, PML-N or the current PTI.
None of these so-called ‘moderate parties’ are in a position to break from the guardrails of Pakistani positions, without sacrificing their ‘patriotism’ amongst the gullible masses.
However sometimes, serendipitous alignment of circumstances and individuals warrant and trigger the unleashing of trial balloons to ascertain the overall sentiment within the ‘establishment’ to push the contours of the traditional Pakistani narrative.
Confidence building measures (CBM’s) with India typify the necessitation of such tests. Thus, it is normal to see the ‘one-step-forward-two-steps-backwards’ shuffle, which follows the suit of a potential rapprochement, only to be followed by a countermove to derail the process.
Pakistan’s Sugar and Cotton Talk Was Just to Test Domestic Sentiments on India
Very recently, optics and soundbites emanating from the twin-cities of Islamabad (political capital) and Rawalpindi (Military GHQ) seemed to be making reconciliatory comments (albeit, suffixed with ‘Kashmir’) to suggest a joint-interest in normalising relations with India, post the 5th Aug 2019 revocation of Article 370, which led to the formal freeze.
Nearly two years since—the socio-economic condition of Pakistan worsening to unprecedented lows with the crippling pandemic—peace with India and normalcy of trade could only bring the much needed succour to the depleted coffers, which are running dangerously on ‘borrowed time’.
Importantly, the green signal was triggered by the Pakistani Chief General Bajwa’s, ‘bury the past and move forward’ nudge (with the mandatory ‘K’ reference), which was soon picked up and presented in the form of a trial balloon by Pakistan’s Economic Coordination Committee (ECC), which comes directly under Imran Khan’s undistributed portfolio to propose allowing imports of sugar, cotton and yarn from India.
Ostensibly and procedurally the proposal was put to the Cabinet to ‘evaluate’ the merits, without committing to a decision. However, such a sensitive trial balloon could not have been issued without the direct acquiescence of the Prime Minister.
Imran Khan in a cavalier fashion dissed his own trial balloon by invoking the rote conditionality of ‘J&K’, which had received no traction within the ummah, let alone in the International Court of Justice, as initially threatened.
Relative Lack of Anti-India Sentiment on the Streets Looks Encouraging
The audacious trial balloon had the necessary tailwinds of failed ‘internationalisation’, followed by a debilitating pandemic that embarrassingly forced the ‘Indian Vaccine’, saw a flight of aid donors within the Sheikhdoms, and a precariously poised ground situation in Afghanistan which could backfire on Islamabad with the exit of the US forces.
Continuing the belligerence with India, could only add to the unsustainable costs. But the politics of Pakistani ‘establishment’ are given to internal pressures that despite the rare alignment of most elements of the ‘establishment’ – the trial balloon needs to be shot down by themselves, in order to avoid shooting-themselves in the foot.
Perhaps Pakistan was only ascertaining and quantifying the public and ‘establishment’ reactions to the latest trial balloon to determine the extent to which it could realistically stretch the conventional line.
The silver lining amidst the latest trial balloon, if any, was the relative lack of anti-India reaction from the streets and the opposition. Herein, lies the hope for more feelers getting sent soon.
Current situation perpetuating, Delhi should expect more trial balloons in the offing and respond with measured/matching enthusiasm that certainly goes beyond partisan considerations, both within Islamabad and Delhi. India must calibrate its response in accordance to the outreach as normalcy helps Delhi as much as Islamabad.
(Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is a Former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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