A risky fa­tal­ism in In­dia

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - da­vidig­natius@wash­post.com

Ev­ery­thing is go­ing right these days for In­dia, ex­cept for one big prob­lem: It is liv­ing next to a Pak­istan that is com­ing apart po­lit­i­cally, and In­dian lead­ers in­sist with a tone of res­ig­na­tion that there’s noth­ing they can do about it.

Start­ing with Prime Min­is­ter Man­mo­han Singh, top In­dian of­fi­cials know that their boom­ing democ­racy is en­dan­gered by the grow­ing chaos across the border. They say that they’re will­ing to re­vive back-chan­nel ne­go­ti­a­tions with Is­lam­abad to re­solve the long-fes­ter­ing prob­lem of Kash­mir. They fa­vor con­fi­dence­build­ing mea­sures to re­duce the risk of war be­tween these two nu­cle­ar­armed na­tions.

And then, in the next breath, In­dian of­fi­cials in­sist that such pos­i­tive steps won’t make any dif­fer­ence. The Pak­istani mil­i­tary doesn’t want any re­duc­tion in ten­sions, they ar­gue. The civil­ian govern­ment is crum­bling and in­ca­pable of mak­ing a deal. Even Singh, long an ad­vo­cate of bet­ter re­la­tions with Pak­istan, is said to have con­cluded that hopes for bet­ter re­la­tions are “wish­ful think­ing.”

A few hun­dred miles away in Is­lam­abad, you’d hear the same bleak mes­sage from Pak­istani mil­i­tary and po­lit­i­cal lead­ers. Yes, they know that the im­me­di­ate threat to Pak­istan is from Is­lamic mil­i­tants, not In­dia. Yes, they know that restor­ing a back-chan­nel di­a­logue with New Delhi might ease ten­sions. But no, they don’t see any way to step back from the brink. The In­di­ans, in their view, are con­spir­ing to un­der­mine Pak­istan.

Wel­come to the world’s most dan­ger­ous zero-sum game. The sad fact is that In­dia and Pak­istan, sep­a­rated at birth in 1947, are locked in what seems like a blood feud. You hear the same lan­guage of sus­pi­cion in pros­per­ous New Delhi that you do in em­bat­tled Is­lam­abad.

I spent three days here talk­ing with In­dian lead­ers as part of a di­a­logue spon­sored by the Aspen Strat­egy Group and the Con­fed­er­a­tion of In­dian In­dus­try. Dis­cussing the In­di­aPak­istan dis­pute with these of­fi­cials re­minded me of the fa­ble of Tan­talus, whose pun­ish­ment by the gods was that food and drink were al­ways just out of reach. A rap­proche­ment be­tween In­dia and Pak­istan is that elu­sive: You can imag­ine what the re­duc­tion of ten­sions would look like but you can’t grasp it.

This is a prob­lem that might seem ripe for U.S. me­di­a­tion. Washington has close ties with both coun­tries, af­ter all, and it could act as an hon­est bro­ker on is­sues such as Kash­mir, which is ruled by In­dia but claimed by both coun­tries. But In­di­ans say that Amer­i­can in­ter­ven­tion could just make mat­ters worse — poi­son­ing pub­lic opin­ion against any deal that emerged.

U.S. di­plo­mats are walk­ing on eggshells: The Kash­mir prob­lem is so sen­si­tive that Amer­i­can of­fi­cials some­times re­fer to it as “ the K word,” as if the very sub­ject were un­men­tion­able. Washington has gen­tly en­cour­aged di­a­logue be­tween the two coun­tries, but two meet­ings last year be­tween their for­eign min­is­ters col­lapsed amid mu­tual re­crim­i­na­tions. They will have an­other chance next month at a re­gional gath­er­ing in Bhutan, but no­body seems very hope­ful.

The In­di­ans watch Pak­istan’s po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity with grim res­ig­na­tion. The root prob­lem, they ar­gue, is that the Pak­istani mil­i­tary is un­will­ing to sever its links with Is­lamic ter­ror­ists. Un­til the Pak­ista­nis break this in­sur­gency, they will be at its mercy. Di­a­logue with In­dia won’t make any dif­fer­ence, they in­sist.

“ The last thing we want to see is Pak­istan slide into in­sta­bil­ity,” says one top In­dian of­fi­cial, but he cau­tions that there is lit­tle that In­dia or Amer­ica can do. “It’s Pak­istan’s in­ter­nal prob­lem. And that, we can’t fix.”

As In­dia cel­e­brates its own eco­nomic suc­cess, there is a slight tone of South Asian schaden­freude about Pak­istan’s trou­bles. “ There is one school of thought that says, ‘If they [the Pak­ista­nis] are com­mit­ting sui­cide, then you don’t have to murder them,’” the top of­fi­cial con­cedes. “But the con­se­quences of that are hor­ri­ble.”

I came away from these dis­cus­sions feel­ing that In­dian lead­ers are be­ing short­sighted: If Pak­istan de­scends fur­ther into vi­o­lence and chaos, In­dia will suf­fer from the fall­out. And with these two bit­ter ri­vals, there is al­ways the risk of nu­clear war. If I were a newly pros­per­ous In­dian, I’d want to help my ail­ing neigh­bor as a mat­ter of self-pro­tec­tion.

But try mak­ing that ar­gu­ment to In­dian of­fi­cials. “You have to rec­og­nize that some prob­lems can’t be solved,” coun­sels one prom­i­nent In­dian. Of­fi­cials here don’t want Amer­i­can me­di­a­tion, and they think out­reach to Pak­istan won’t do any good. Mean­while, the South Asian tin­der­box keeps on get­ting hot­ter.

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