Krishna in Islamabad — More than just a visit

The complaint of Mr. Vivek Katju, a retired diplomat, against his views being “censored” by the AIR, has featured in the press. The question in particular on the programme “Charcha” on AIR was on whether the prime minister should visit Pakistan. Mr. Katju’s reply was in the negative. The complaint has served not only to attract attention to “censorship” but also to Mr. Katju’s view that the prime minister should not be considering visiting Pakistan. On the latter, is Mr. Katju right? 

It is possible that Mr. Katju is wrong, but he is entitled to his views. He is also entitled to airing these and having them carried by the national broadcaster. However, this is not the first time Mr. Katju has attempted to exercise influence on the trajectory of India-Pakistan relations. His earlier foray has been recorded by General Musharraf in his self-serving autobiography, In the Line of Fire.

The General having elevated himself from CEO to President had alighted at Agra with high expectations. India’s surprise announcement reaching out to the troublemaker at Kargil, one who had derailed the promising Lahore peace process, had led to the General imagining that India had a mind to resolve the Kashmir dispute his way. However, Musharraf noted in his book that Mr. Katju, then a bureaucrat in the MEA with a seat at the negotiation table, played a role in holding Mr. Vajpayee back at a critical juncture in the talks. The rest, as they say, has since included a near-war and at least one crisis, is now history.   

Mr. Katju’s is just a pre-emptive salvo from the better known quarters. Mr. Katju’s views, no doubt well founded after a lifetime in service of Indian diplomacy in hot spots such as Afghanistan and in hot seats such as the Pakistan desk, are also widely shared by those with less exposure and reflection. These are the less visible vested political interests on the Indian side that prefer a communal polarization in South Asia, one reflected in and fed by the interstate face-off. They are not only not averse to seeing this cut straight through Indian society, but instead prefer it. The advantage these forces take of seemingly professional opinion, such as voiced by Mr. Katju, is indeterminate.

Additionally, it is also indeterminate as to how much of the strategic opinion is informed by ‘soft’ cultural nationalism, the hard variant of which is propagated by the communal forces. The extent of subscription to cultural nationalist tenets by officials has been understudied, deliberately so since finding it to be consequential would detract from India’s secular credentials.

Secondly, Mr. Katju’s opinion cannot but have been informed by his life experience, that would perhaps include the tremendous challenges faced by the Kashmiri Pandit community. Having also been exposed to the underside of the Pakistani establishment, Mr. Katju cannot but exert to warn as he does.

Cumulatively, this suggests that Pakistan related strategizing is not without its limitations in terms of well springs. It is important to be clear-eyed about such possible contamination of strategic prescriptions. Opinions such as that of Mr. Katju can then be taken with a pinch of salt. Acknowledging that such opinion and such opinion-makers do not have monopoly over strategic rationality, is the first step in moving to examine alternatives that otherwise remain unexamined due to lack of imprimature by strategic “experts”.

The case for the prime minister’s visit is one such. The same yardstick of strategic bias informing opinion, used here to examine Mr. Katju’s opinion, has been applied to Dr. Manmohan Singh’s hope of repairing India-Pakistan relations. His strategic preference is taken as one informed by nostalgia, quite like the work of Mr. IK Gujral earlier. The good that came out of the previous instance of Punjabiyat impacting policy has been the “composite dialogue” process. That a dialogue is into its third iteration after its severest test at 26/11 suggests the power of the idea. A prime ministerial visit would ensure resumption of the dialogue in its composite format, as had been forged finally in the Vajpayee-Musharraf joint statement of 2004. Therefore, even if the origin of the strategic preference is not much different, judging it differently must be in terms of its positive consequence.

But, the lion must be bearded in its own den and on its terms for the case for the visit to be carried. In other words, strategic rationality must be deployed to argue in favour of such a visit.

India’s policy is one of expanding and strengthening the pro-peace constituency in Pakistan. This is to be done to the extent that eventually they take over the democratic space in Pakistan, constricting the military-mulla combine. Clearly, if a policy is to be carried through to its logical conclusion in a democratic peace, the prime minister must undertake the mission. Not doing so would leave the extremists on both sides in a position to dictate the inter-state agenda.

Given this as making strategic sense, the question is now one of timing. The government having been on the backfoot over the past two years has just chosen to break out with a slew of second generation economic reforms. Since this can be expected to draw political backlash, it is unlikely the government can sustain yet another policy initiative, this time in the field of foreign policy. Being of neo-liberal inclination, it has chosen to prioritise economics over foreign policy. In effect, that Dr. Singh is not going is certainly not because Mr. Katju’s say so.

 Taking this as time gained to set back the intellectual sway of ‘naysayers’ in the strategic discourse is the best way to build the climate and momentum to ensure the visit takes place, perhaps not of Dr. Singh but by the next prime minister. The fight will also help keep away figures from the prime ministerial chair having no interest in making the visit in the first place.