Ending the zero-sum game

It's practically a tradition to see India-Pakistan relations as a zero-sum game — if it is good for Pakistan, it must be bad for India and vice versa. Or so it seems to many on both sides of the border. But when all is said and done, is it really so?

In the months since the Mumbai attack, when regular dialogue has been suspended, every high-level meeting has been seen through that zero-sum prism, throwing up one as a winner and the other as a loser every time: If Yekaterinburg saw a snub for Pakistan when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gave President Asif Ali Zardari a “dressing down” on terror, Sharm el-Sheikh put India on back foot after Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani slipped a reference to Balochistan past Dr. Singh. If India works on blocking China's nuclear deal with Pakistan, Islamabad feels satisfied that New Delhi has been blocked on gaining influence in Afghanistan.

The last two months have seen some change in that narrative — starting with Thimphu, where Dr. Singh and Mr. Gilani decided to make a fresh start — no scoring points ahead of their meeting, and briefings to the press after that were coordinated in content. In June, that change in strategy was more visible, first in meetings between the Foreign Secretaries, and then as Home Minister P. Chidambaram travelled to Islamabad and met the Pakistani leadership. His line was firm, sticking mainly to the agenda of more Pakistani action in the Mumbai attacks case, but he got assurances from Interior Minister Rehman Malik — from publicly agreeing to hand over voice samples of the 26/11 accused, to going after more suspects, and to “reconsidering the case against LeT founder Hafiz Saeed in the light of new evidence shared.” Officials say the new avowal to act came after Mr. Chidambaram shared details of American LeT operative David Headley where he spoke of his meetings with Saeed.

Biggest shift

Perhaps the biggest shift on the part of Islamabad was accepting the centrality of action in the Mumbai attacks case to future relations between the countries. In the past, the responses of Pakistani leaders to India's pleas on the 26/11 investigation were helplessness (“We face a Mumbai-type attack everyday”), side-stepping (“Let's talk about the water problem too”) and even counter-attack (“the dossier on Balochistan”).

“Pakistan is coming out of denial,” Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi told CNN-IBN last week, “People here no longer see groups like the Taliban as friends.”

Dr. Singh's efforts to move away from the zero-sum game may be a small part of the reason for that shift. Pakistan's internal pressures are the bigger part. The attacks of the past few months have triggered a backlash among ordinary Pakistanis not seen in the past. The first reason has been the nature and target of the attacks — the massacre of minorities at their place of worship.

While the killing of 94 Ahmediyas in prayer may have evoked a mute response, the suicide bombing at Datta Darbar, the shrine of the revered Sufi saint Hazrat Ali Hajveri, that killed 41 devotees some weeks later brought thousands out on the streets in protest. Shops shut down in cities across the country to mark the people's outrage. Interestingly, the target of the protests has been the Punjab government, not the federal government.

According to analysts based in Pakistan, this was not just outrage at the government's failure to maintain law and order, this was anger against the State government run by the PML-N's Shahbaz Sharif for its perceived support to extremist groups. It was Mr. Sharif who last year pleaded with the Taliban not to attack targets in Punjab because they were “of the same ideology.” It was his Law Minister, Rana Sanaullah, who campaigned along with leaders of the anti-Shi'a radical group SSP, and his government that admitted to giving grants of Rs.8.2 crore to Hafiz Saeed's Jamaat-ud Dawa last year. Most notably in the protests, it was the clerics of the Sunni Ittehaad Council themselves who demanded that the government stop funding Saeed's outfit. The demand also points to the widening rift between Pakistan's original and majority Barelvi ‘Sufi-ist' followers and Wahabi Deobandis like Saeed, who not only rants against India but also targets Ahmediyas, Sufis and Shi'as in his speeches.

For India, the ISI's backing for Saeed continues to be the main concern, but internally now it is the provincial government's ties to the Punjabi Taliban that are taking the spotlight. The Sharifs, particularly Mian Nawaz Sharif, are known to be fervent followers of the Tablighi Jamaat — the all-powerful sect that provides inspiration to jihadi groups — especially those based in Punjab. The small town of Raiwind on Lahore's outskirts houses the world headquarters of the Tablighi Jamaat, as well as, interestingly, the Sharifs' own sprawling estate. It was at this Tablighi centre that the men arrested for carrying out the Ahmedi mosque massacres stayed and, according to reports, police captured a large stash of arms from another Raiwind hideout some days ago.

The other reason for the vocal backlash in Pakistan has been anguish over the profiles of those behind the most brutal terror acts — the world sat up when it emerged that the Times Square wannabe bomber was the son of a retired Air Vice-Marshal, that Headley had a half-brother in Prime Minister Gilani's office, and that in so many attacks terror recruits were drawn from Pakistan's upper middle class and elite. The men arrested for brutally gunning down 40 people including 17 children, mainly families of army officers at Rawalpindi's Parade Lane mosque in December 2009, fit into this growing statistic — while one was the son of a government officer in Islamabad, the other's father was a journalist. They were indoctrinated, say police, not at camps in PoK or Waziristan, but on the Internet, through promotional videos, and even at Dars or Koranic lectures that are so commonly held in drawing-rooms across Pakistan's big cities. Among the suspects in the parade ground attack were a former Foreign Service officer and two women who conducted such Dars, and also allegedly helped with logistics for the attack.

The revulsion over what one editorial refers to as ‘Pakistan's creeping coup' by the Taliban could be India's most effective ally as it renews its dialogue with Pakistan while keeping concerns over terror at the forefront. After meeting Mr. Chidambaram last week, Mr. Malik, who is increasingly targeting the Punjab government for its lack of action against extremist groups, said in interviews: “We know that the Taliban's aim is to overrun Pakistan in order to attack India. We also have intelligence that groups behind the Mumbai attack continue to plan to send India and Pakistan to war.”

As India waits for Mr. Malik and other members of Pakistan's government to make good on their latest promises on the 26/11 investigation and External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna heads there for another round of talks, the zero-sum game should be put on hold — as eventually, it is only in Islamabad's realisation that working against the LeT and other anti-India groups is in its own best interests that would change the discourse from its unproductive past. A realisation on both sides that what is diabolical for India cannot possibly do any good for Pakistan, and vice versa.

(Suhasini Haidar is the Deputy Foreign Editor, CNN-IBN.)

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Printable version | Jul 29, 2021 12:36:22 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/Ending-the-zero-sum-game/article16195237.ece

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