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Updated: September 17, 2013 00:36 IST

Too pessimistic to be good

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Shooting for a Century
The India-Pakistan Conundrum: Stephen P. Cohen
Shooting for a Century The India-Pakistan Conundrum: Stephen P. Cohen

Cohen seems to have lost sight of the primacy of civilian control in India, unlike in Pakistan

Some may consider Shooting for a Century, the latest book by Stephen P. Cohen of Brookings Institute, a well-known authority on India and Pakistan, a commendable and scholarly balance sheet of Indo-Pak relations. But to those well versed with the historical progression of the stormy relationship between the two neighbours — this compendium, or a ‘primer’, is self-avowedly pessimistic. Cohen’s primary hypothesis is that a century after partition, till 2047 — hence the title (and ‘the conditional pessimism’), there will be no substantive change in the relationship. He foresees, alternatively, a nuclear conflagration between India and Pakistan to further substantiate that the South Asian region is the third most violent place besides being, economically, one of the least integrated regions in the world.

While he underlines the cultural and ethnic similarities between the two countries, Cohen candidly analyses the deeply embedded difference in culture, history and identity between the two, too. He terms it as ‘paired minority conflict’ in which each side views itself as threatened and vulnerable, and thus resists negotiations and compromise. Unsurprisingly, then, India’s image of Pakistan mirrors the image Pakistan has of India. Both nurture ‘mutual blind spots’ that disallows questioning of respective narratives.

However, new variables do significantly alter the dynamics in the region. For Cohen, these are twin factors: nuclearisation of India and Pakistan and, the Islamic extremism in the progressively failing state of Pakistan so much so that “Islamic solidarity had supplanted ethnicity and linguistic allegiances”. The perils of nuclearisation notwithstanding, Cohen questions the “irony of India’s position” in believing that Pakistan will act rationally in a moment of crisis. This is a flawed argument. While it reinforces Pakistani policy of ‘cultivated nuclear irrationalism’ so as to reduce India’s security options; it allows Cohen to recommend that Pakistan’s nuclearisation, like India’s, should be legitimised by the western world. Cohen treads on thin ice here. If Pakistan, a state with a history of trans-border proliferations, would act rationally only if its nuclear capability is legitimised (otherwise it would use tactical nuclear weapons in a conflict), it does not bring any clarity to the issue. It only harks to the U.S.’s desire for stability in the region by contestable means.

In his effort to appear fair, Cohen goes on to equate the Indian Army with its Pakistani counterpart, insinuating that both armies are unhappy with normalisation. He cites the ‘veto’ of the pact on Siachen by the Indian Army as his rationale. Strange, given that he advocates that a resolution of Siachen must include China. Cohen also seems to have lost sight of the primacy of civilian control in India, unlike Pakistan where the army actually rules.

Overall, it is while making his recommendations to India, mostly naïve, that Cohen falls into treacherous depths. To his credit, besides attaching importance to water-sharing issues, he recognises that Kashmir occupies inordinate space in the relationship particularly when the dominant threat perceived in India is not Pakistan but China, and the great threat for Pakistan is not India but domestic terror groups and the U.S. In fact, in a rare instance of indirectly questioning the credibility of the Pakistani stand, he quotes the survey that given a choice, 21% Kashmiris would opt for India vis-a-vis only 15% for Pakistan. He further refers to the damning findings of the Nicholson report on human rights in POK. Therefore, his suggestion that Kashmir should be ‘bypassed’ with adoption of a ‘generational approach to normalization’ appears logical. He advises a benign role for the U.S. in Kashmir and urges making LOC the international border with the proviso that any solution should factor the Kashmiri people and China.

U.S. policy

But in order to appear ‘impartial’, he rakes up the issue of ‘hyphenation’ and consequently, he might well appear as favouring Pakistan over India. His prescription to U.S. to ‘re-hyphenate’ India and Pakistan, with a broader role for the U.S., including Kashmir, harks back to 1960s and ignores the reality that India has since broken out of its relations with Pakistan being the defining point of India’s regional and global role. Cohen also rationalises past failures of Pakistan to reciprocate while blithely suggesting both integrate economically and jointly work towards both tackling Islamic extremism and the nation-building of Afghanistan.

The book’s real value is the conundrum within the Indo-Pakistan conundrum that concerns U.S.’s policy towards South Asia. Cohen summarises it like this: no policy for South Asia, good policy for India, risky policy on Afghanistan, and several policies in Pakistan. He goes on to suggest that normalisation between India and Pakistan should be uppermost in U.S. policy vis-a-vis individual bilateral relations with them.

India and Pakistan have been antagonists, sufferers of colonial past and cold war policies, and causalities of their own assumptions about themselves. The greatest contribution of the book is in unravelling the clutter that has obfuscated the core of Indo-Pak relations. As predicted by Cohen, most likely it will be business as usual and none of the analytical scenarios may materialise. The inherent mutual distrust would continue unless elites of both countries shape the public opinion than subscribe to it, and, factor the political cost internally while continuing to engage with each other with a mix of pessimism and cautious optimism with institutional interactions to make the neighbourhood a safer place.

(Tiwari is an IAS officer and Bahl is with the Indian Army. The views expressed are personal)

Shooting for a Century

The India-Pakistan Conundrum: Stephen P. Cohen;

The Brookings Institution,

1775 Massachusetts Ave.,

NW, Washington, DC 20036.

$ 29.95.

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