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Pakistan-India Relations

December 17, 2013

Why they are unlikely to improve and may become worse

By Anjum Altaf

Pakistan and India continue to flounder in a relationship marked by a frustrating low-level equilibrium trap. Almost everyone concedes there are gains to making up but no one seems able to transcend the impasse. From time to time there is the promise of a breakout dissipated quickly by a sharp downturn.  A flurry of advisories follows on the importance of maintaining the relationship and much posturing later things work themselves back to the annoying status quo.

The sequence has now been repeated often enough to suggest the combination of method and madness that might be at play. The mix of rationality and irrationality is not all that curious. People talk about its various elements but for reasons not hard to decipher refrain from assembling them all in one narrative.

I believe it is worth spelling out the factors that stand in the way of better relations if only to point to the major hurdles that remain to be negotiated. Acknowledging the unpleasant realities is a necessary step to understanding the challenges that lie ahead.

Pakistan is home to groups that gain from a state of tension in the region without which their dominant position in the country’s polity might weaken. Over the years they have evolved an all-encompassing narrative that rationalizes their positions and have invested considerable resources in convincing the rest of the country of the validity of that rhetoric.

These efforts have not been in vain – a number of zealous and proactive sub-groups have been recruited to the cause and the judgment of many others has been clouded. But the depth of this success has not really been tested. Citizens confronted point-blank with a choice between continued conflicts and improving their children’s lives are quite likely to vote for the latter. This is simply because the majority has suffered to the point of impoverishment as a consequence of the diversion of resources to non-economic goals whose logic is embedded in the confrontational rhetoric.

The basis for this seemingly contrarian claim is the fact that even after many decades there is no slackening in the intensity of the indoctrination presumably because its impact remains shallow. Allow a few visitors from across the border and people forget the cultivated enmity in about the time it takes to complete their introductions. No surprise then that the indoctrination is accompanied by strenuous choking of opportunities for people to meet.

Actions in India are more difficult to explain because of the absence of a well-entrenched group with a similar direct interest in continued conflict. Much of the belligerence is driven by considerations of short-term electoral gains whenever the opportunity is offered by a provocation from across the border which is just the reaction the protagonists in Pakistan hope to evoke. Rejecting the entrapment by persisting with steps aimed at improving relations exacts too high an electoral cost or so it seems to be perceived. On many issues a tit-for-tat stalemate ensues with actions aimed to demonstrate the intent of punishing Pakistan even at the cost of benefits foregone for India.

While none of the political actors in India seem to have a real interest in provoking confrontation and engulfing the country in conflict, each is hostage to the tyranny of an electoral calculus that thrives on a wellspring of negative feelings. The principal repositories of negative feelings are the upper and middle income classes that have the luxury to hate and punish without suffering real consequences. The trenchant observation of the late Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer comes to mind. When asked why the educated middle class was more bigoted than the illiterate masses, his reply was short and simple: “Because it is educated.”

The middle class being larger in India than in Pakistan, both in proportion to the total population and in absolute numbers, the former has a bigger pool of latent hostility. The feelings of this pool are inflamed in particular by the recent one-sided provocations from Pakistan that have caused real, visible damage in India. What makes the two countries very different is that, unlike Pakistan, India is home to a sizable population that shares a religion with the majority across the border. This adds a dimension to the electoral calculus whose implications are difficult to appreciate fully in Pakistan. Adding yet more complexity to the situation is the fact that the minority also carries the baggage and burden of a history that some political forces, egged on by a media vying for the attention of the middle class, are more than ready to distort for electoral gains.

The exploitation of communal sentiments, not to unite ‘us’ against ‘them’ as in Pakistan, but for divisive purposes as in India, has a bearing on choices and outcomes in the latter. Asides from the race to the bottom in electoral invective and competitive symbolic posturing, it spills over into unrelated domains. For example, with India’s business houses becoming global players, many expected their rational self-interest to coalesce in a constituency pushing for collaboration to leverage market opportunities in Pakistan. But the attraction of material gain seems not yet strong enough to over-ride the reluctance to engage with the ‘other’ in the mutually beneficial exchange suggested by the textbook definition of rationality stripped of emotions.

The bottom line is that the material interest of numerically small groups drives the hostility from Pakistan while the imperatives of electoral politics exacerbating communal sentiments forestall a measured response from India.

In Pakistan the challenge remains to neutralize the groups with a stake in keeping the conflict alive, a seemingly impossible task given the imbalance of coercive power. A rational response from India, in a world devoid of emotions, might be the one recommended by most opinion makers – to not let provocations from Pakistan derail progress and to isolate the provocateurs by remaining engaged with and strengthening constituencies favoring improved relations. Emotions, however, wield more power than reason. People act on emotions, then take selective recourse to reason to justify their actions. And when there are parties that gain by playing strategically on those emotions, rationality has very little chance to come to the rescue.

Citizens in the two countries are very much alike as individuals but the terrains they inhabit now are vastly different. In Pakistan there is fear and helplessness in confronting the material interests; In India, there is inability to overcome the communal prejudices that are kept alive for short-term gains. It is these very distinct particularities that underlie the persistence of poor relations.

There is nothing on the horizon that signals a change in the short run and all one can hope is that the brinksmanship on the two sides does not spiral out of control of those playing chicken at the expense of citizens. In the longer term, one of the countries is likely to collapse under the burden. How much collective damage the dynamics of that collapse would inflict on South Asia remains impossible to predict.

Anjum Altaf is dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. This article appeared in The Friday Times on December 16, 2013 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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