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03 April, 2012

Looking beyond wars

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The European countries which fought one another off and on for close to 1,000 years have been at peace with themselves for two generations and the political and economic union they forged two decades ago is rewriting the continent’s history. The threat of a catastrophic third World War, which was widely talked about after the second one, has receded, hopefully never to return. But the possibility of war is still a topic of discussion in India and its neighbourhood.

Half a century after India and China fought a short war — the only one in their history of 5,000 years — so-called think tanks and defence analysts in the two countries periodically speculate on a possible new military confrontation as the border dispute which precipitated the 1961 conflict remains unresolved even after many rounds of discussions.

Pundits presume China’s growing assertiveness in the wake of its emergence as a global power and its perceived rivalry with India, which is on the same developmental track, are factors that may lead to fresh conflicts, if only on a limited basis. The Chinese leadership’s assertion that there is room for both the countries to develop has not made an impression on their minds attuned to conventional wisdom.

India and Pakistan fought three wars in 25 years as independent nations but there has been no resort to arms in the 40 years since then, barring a brief confrontation on the icy heights of Siachen in 1999. Last week, writing in a Pakistani daily, a former army brigadier spoke of a likely Indian attack on Pakistan, coinciding with an Israeli attack on Iran. He also envisaged India seeking US support to “de-nuke, balkanise and de-Islamise Pakistan” before its planned pullout from Afghanistan.

Reports from the US indicate that forebodings about India-Pakistan relations prevail in official and academic circles in that country. James Miller, who is seeking confirmation as Undersecretary for Defence, told a Congressional committee last week that Pakistani military and intelligence services’ support to militants targeting India “has the potential to result in military confrontation that could rapidly escalate into a nuclear exchange.”

Daniel Markey, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, writing at the CFR website said another Mumbai-type terrorist attack could lead India and Pakistan to the brink of war and require the US president to play an important mediating role.

Frank Panter, a high-ranking Pentagon official, was quoted as saying the US might have to develop an alternative route with India’s help if Pakistan refused to reopen the Nato supply routes to Afghanistan which it had closed four months ago in protest against bombing raids on targets in its territory.

Since Afghanistan emerged as a trouble spot following the Soviet invasion of 1979 India and Pakistan have been invariably on opposite sides. India now works closely with the US to ensure that country’s post-war stability but it will be a folly to ignore the vital differences in their strategic interests in the region.

With the Kashmir dispute in the limbo and Pakistan-based terrorist groups remaining a source of worry to India, there is indeed plenty of room for wild speculation. However, those looking beyond short-term possibilities can see signs of a change for the better in India-Pakistan relations with economic factors moderating political sentiments.

Of particular significance in this regard are India’s offer to provide Pakistan 5,000 megawatts of power and to supply petrol across the border and the Pakistan government’s determination to go forward with its proposal to grant India most favoured nation status. Pakistan’s business community, which views grant of MFN status with disfavour, has welcomed the offer to provide power as a harbinger of better relations between the two countries.

In the early years of Independence, India was Pakistan’s largest trading partner, accounting for half of its exports and nearly one-third of its imports. Adverse political and economic conditions kept pushing bilateral trade down over the years.

Official and academic studies in Pakistan have shown that gains from increased trade with India will far outweigh the losses. Indian official and commercial interests have recognised that, as South Asia’s second largest market, Pakistan has to be accorded its due place in the economy of the region. However, given the ground realities, the development of healthy economic relations must necessarily be a slow process.-- Gulf Today, Sharjah, April 3, 2012.

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