August 09, 2020
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In A Frigid State

Pakistan waited. And Manmohan kept it waiting.

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In A Frigid State
Jitender Gupta
In A Frigid State

Like spectators at a tennis match, many Pakistanis have been watching the two realms beyond either side their border with a periodic rhythm. With both India and Afghanistan in the throes of general elections, they must be wondering if the frontiers would change their faces dramatically. And with the likely victories of Narendra Modi and Abdullah Abdullah staring in their faces, Pakistani policymakers feel they have fewer friendly options in the immediate neighbourhood.

Though the UPA-II government in New Delhi staggered on for five years without displaying the political will for a decisive breakthrough in talks with Pakis­tan, it’s ackn­ow­ledged here that Prime Minister Manmo­han Singh reined in ‘anti-­Pakistan’ for­ces in the Ind­ian establishment on seve­ral occasions.

Pakistanis will remember Manmohan as one of the weakest Indian PMs, whose heart was in the right place, but whose reluctance to defy the apron strings of the party supremo to whom he owed fealty denied him a chance of meaningful progress in India-Pakistan ties. In spite of opportunities presenting themselves, Manmohan was at best a ditherer.

The seemingly undue haste with which Manmohan reached out to PML(N)’s Nawaz Sharif even before he had taken oath as Leader of the House raised expectations in Pakistan that Manmohan was intent on taking bilateral relations to a new, freshly confident level for the first time since the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks.

“Manmohan Singh has genuinely disappointed Pakistanis, despite the presence of the ‘Chakwal’ factor—someone regarded as a senior figure and an expert on global economy just could not deliver. Though there were high expectations, he eventua­lly became an expert in maintaining the status quo and nothing else,” says political analyst and TV anchor Nusrat Javeed.

In India-Pakistan relations, a visit from a top leader goes a long way in normalising ties and creating conditions for dialogue, all beyond the prying eyes of the media. Pakistan’s leaders, even its dictators, have used props like cricket and religious yatras to break a logjam.

Comparisons are but inevitable, and Pakistanis recall how the BJP’s Atal Behari Vajpayee had made conscious efforts, taken the initiative and visited Pakistan—first for the Lahore bus diplomacy and then to attend the SAARC heads of government summit. Both were seen as highly successful visits from an Indian PM whose sincere efforts were foiled by Gen Pervez Musharraf who, charged with murder and treason, now faces the Supreme Court. Compare this with Man­m­ohan, who reacted to the many Pakistani invitations and overtures with statements of earnest intent, and nothing else.

Indeed, efforts were made for Manmohan to come to Pakistan on a private visit so as to avoid the hawkish expectations of a state trip—where he need not make promises, would not be seen returning empty-handed, and yet could have held meaningful talks. On such a trip, the spotlight could easily have been shone on a visit to Manmohan’s old village in Punjab, Chakwal, where his elderly friends would start tidying up the village at even a hint of their famous neighbour’s long-awaited appearance. PM Manmohan missed out on generating enormous goodwill by forfeiting the chance to thank, in person, excited volunteers who would whitewash walls of his former home and school as rumours of a visit circulated. Talk about a visit to the various gurudwaras in Pakistan was also left unrealised.

But publicly, as long as Manmohan insisted on a formal and ‘meaningful visit’ to Pakistan, many here expected that an agreement on trade with the Nawaz Sharif government would provide the plank for an official visit. Liberalisation of the existing visa regime was also on the wishlist. And all this would be helped along with positive progress in the 26/11 Mumbai trial. Though advances were being made in all these areas, time and again, New Delhi put a spanner in the works.

A former foreign secretary told Outlook a year ago that he felt embarrassed by the manner in which Pakistan was repeatedly grovelling before Man­­mohan Singh, pleading him to visit the country.

Nusrat Javeed also recalls how former Ind­ian PMs developed the much-needed perso­nal chemistries with their Pak­istani counterparts to help steer them through dec­ades-old irritants. “We saw the personal chemistry betw­een Benazir Bhutto and Rajiv Gandhi, between Gujral and Nawaz Sharif and between Sha­rif and Vajpa­yee. But in the case of Man­mohan Singh this did not hap­­pen at all, and even Sharif failed to str­ike the right chords with his fellow Punjabi,” he says. Man­m­ohan will go down in history as a status quoist, he adds.

But to be fair to Man­mohan, all this policy stasis vis-a-vis Pakistan also meant great restraint from his government, despite much of India’s opposition spoiling for a fight after 26/11. Compared to this, the terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001 resulted in the BJP government amassing troops on the Line of Control, freezing the air corridor over India, and heightening tensions.

Also, it is now no secret that an understanding on Kashmir was something Manmohan was sincerely working on through the backchannels of diplomacy. According to PMO sources in New Delhi, some ‘progress’ had been made, with one interlocutor acknowledging that a successful accord would bear the name of Manmohan Singh. It’s one of the missed chances that Manmohan has presided over.

As Manmohan packs his bags, Pakistanis are hoping that some day he would write his memoirs and reveal the forces that kept him from rea­lising his intention to normalise relations with Pakistan. After all, he is now a free man.

By Mariana Baabar in Islamabad

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