Sharat Sabharwal's 'India's Pakistan Conundrum' on engaging with a difficult neighbor : The Tribune India - Upsmag - Magazine News

Sharat Sabharwal’s ‘India’s Pakistan Conundrum’ on engaging with a difficult neighbor : The Tribune India

Manoj Joshi

Pakistani occupies an enormous amount of mind space in India. Remarkably, though, Indian scholarship on Pakistan is anaemic and, indeed, there is not a single academic institute devoted to studying the country with which India has fought several wars, whose existence forms a staple of our political discourse and whose jihadi warriors continue to assault our cities. Leave alone institutes, there is an acute scarcity of even individuals who can authoritatively talk of developments — be they political, economic or social — in Pakistan.

Sharat Sabharwal’s book is a valiant attempt to fill the gap. His experience in dealing with our difficult neighbor forms the core of the book, but its real value lies in how he has fleshed it out into a readable study of considerable value.

Sabharwal spent a total of eight years in Islamabad in two tranches — Deputy High Commissioner (1995-1999) and then as High Commissioner (2009-2013). The first saw the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests, the heady expectations from Vajpayee’s Lahore visit and their betrayal in Kargil. The second led off from the Mumbai terror attack through which the Deep State, aka the Pakistan army, effectively scuttled a process that had come close to settling the Kashmir issue.

The author notes that Pakistan’s economy is running on external aid, borrowings “and a prayer”. Many think it may be on the verge of a death spiral similar to the one Sri Lanka has gone under earlier this year.

So precarious is the situation that the Army chief, General Bajwa, recently called US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman for help in getting IMF to release funds immediately. The funds are part of a 2019 pledge of $6 billion, but their release is on hold on account of former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s economic policies.

Sabharwal makes it clear that Pakistan’s problems are structural and “deeply ingrained in its external posture and internal functioning” — in essence, its policy of confronting its endowed and much larger neighbor, India.

The most important part of the book is his exploration as to how we could handle our difficult neighbor. Over time, Pakistan has used four instruments to deal with its asymmetry with India — external alliances, disproportionately huge defense spending, the use of terrorism and the development of nuclear weapons. With nuclear weapons in the equation, India cannot effect a purely military solution to the problem, notwithstanding Islamabad’s continued use of jihadi warriors to attack us. The US alliance has now been replaced by China, whose own problems with India make for an “iron friendship”.

There has been brave talk in India of using other instruments like starving Pakistan of water, or exploiting its ethnic faultlines. Neither is advisable, says the author. He explains in some detail as to why the water instrument is simply not a workable proposition. And, he observes, the value of any strategy of promoting the disintegration of Pakistan “is questionable as the resulting chaos will not leave India untouched”.

As a diplomat, Sabharwal advocates continued diplomacy and dialogue as a means of containing the violence that comes from across the border and maintain our focus on our other priorities, principally our own economic transformation. The so-called “composite dialogue” has run its course, and we will now have to start afresh.

The bottomline, says Sabharwal, is that Pakistan is here to stay and we must find ways of dealing with it. To quote the consummate peacemaker, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, “You can choose your friends, but not your neighbors.”

Time is in India’s favour, provided it does nothing rash in its handling of Islamabad. And Sabharwal offers wise counsel when he says that important steps we take at home can aid the process. One is to resolve the Kashmir issue, another is to restore the bipartisan texture of our Pakistan policy, instead of making it an electoral football.

India should achieve a position of being able to leverage its large economy by offering incentives to our smaller neighbors, but, more important, ensure that it maintains its status as a nation where all linguistic, religious and cultural traditions flourish in a vibrant democratic environment. This would be the most appropriate response to the disease of Pakistan’s “exclusionary and divisive ideology”.

All is not doom and gloom and Sabharwal does see some silver linings that could lead to a change in the troubled India-Pakistan relationship. These include introspection in the Pakistani elite brought on by the Internet and social media and the increasing challenge to the army from the political establishment. Many of these trends are still “feeble”, says Sabharwal, but we should not ignore them.

Manoj Joshi

Pakistani occupies an enormous amount of mind space in India. Remarkably, though, Indian scholarship on Pakistan is anaemic and, indeed, there is not a single academic institute devoted to studying the country with which India has fought several wars, whose existence forms a staple of our political discourse and whose jihadi warriors continue to assault our cities. Leave alone institutes, there is an acute scarcity of even individuals who can authoritatively talk of developments — be they political, economic or social — in Pakistan.

Sharat Sabharwal’s book is a valiant attempt to fill the gap. His experience in dealing with our difficult neighbor forms the core of the book, but its real value lies in how he has fleshed it out into a readable study of considerable value.

Sabharwal spent a total of eight years in Islamabad in two tranches — Deputy High Commissioner (1995-1999) and then as High Commissioner (2009-2013). The first saw the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests, the heady expectations from Vajpayee’s Lahore visit and their betrayal in Kargil. The second led off from the Mumbai terror attack through which the Deep State, aka the Pakistan army, effectively scuttled a process that had come close to settling the Kashmir issue.

The author notes that Pakistan’s economy is running on external aid, borrowings “and a prayer”. Many think it may be on the verge of a death spiral similar to the one Sri Lanka has gone under earlier this year.

So precarious is the situation that the Army chief, General Bajwa, recently called US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman for help in getting IMF to release funds immediately. The funds are part of a 2019 pledge of $6 billion, but their release is on hold on account of former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s economic policies.

Sabharwal makes it clear that Pakistan’s problems are structural and “deeply ingrained in its external posture and internal functioning” — in essence, its policy of confronting its endowed and much larger neighbor, India.

The most important part of the book is his exploration as to how we could handle our difficult neighbor. Over time, Pakistan has used four instruments to deal with its asymmetry with India — external alliances, disproportionately huge defense spending, the use of terrorism and the development of nuclear weapons. With nuclear weapons in the equation, India cannot effect a purely military solution to the problem, notwithstanding Islamabad’s continued use of jihadi warriors to attack us. The US alliance has now been replaced by China, whose own problems with India make for an “iron friendship”.

There has been brave talk in India of using other instruments like starving Pakistan of water, or exploiting its ethnic faultlines. Neither is advisable, says the author. He explains in some detail as to why the water instrument is simply not a workable proposition. And, he observes, the value of any strategy of promoting the disintegration of Pakistan “is questionable as the resulting chaos will not leave India untouched”.

As a diplomat, Sabharwal advocates continued diplomacy and dialogue as a means of containing the violence that comes from across the border and maintain our focus on our other priorities, principally our own economic transformation. The so-called “composite dialogue” has run its course, and we will now have to start afresh.

The bottomline, says Sabharwal, is that Pakistan is here to stay and we must find ways of dealing with it. To quote the consummate peacemaker, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, “You can choose your friends, but not your neighbors.”

Time is in India’s favour, provided it does nothing rash in its handling of Islamabad. And Sabharwal offers wise counsel when he says that important steps we take at home can aid the process. One is to resolve the Kashmir issue, another is to restore the bipartisan texture of our Pakistan policy, instead of making it an electoral football.

India should achieve a position of being able to leverage its large economy by offering incentives to our smaller neighbors, but, more important, ensure that it maintains its status as a nation where all linguistic, religious and cultural traditions flourish in a vibrant democratic environment. This would be the most appropriate response to the disease of Pakistan’s “exclusionary and divisive ideology”.

All is not doom and gloom and Sabharwal does see some silver linings that could lead to a change in the troubled India-Pakistan relationship. These include introspection in the Pakistani elite brought on by the Internet and social media and the increasing challenge to the army from the political establishment. Many of these trends are still “feeble”, says Sabharwal, but we should not ignore them.

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