Singh, Zardari Deserve Admiration for Détente

President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India meet in New Delhi, April 8
President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India meet in New Delhi, April 8 (MEA)

The leaders of India and Pakistan are embroiled in scandals at home but can be applauded for at least keeping the dialogue between the two rivaling nations going.

Various scams have been unearthed during the most recent months of Manmohan Singh’s premiership in India. Several of his cabinet ministers are deeply involved. In Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari is in conflict with the judiciary for allegedly siphoning off public money.

Nevertheless, their governments have kept up negotiations, particularly about trade instead of more contentious and time consuming issues like terrorism and Kashmir.

In February, India’s commerce and industry minister Anand Sharma visisted Pakistan to finalize a trade agreement with his Pakistani counterpart. As a result, integrated border checks have been set up to facilitate and increase commerce. This month, the government of India allowed Pakistani investment, albeit in limited sectors of the economy.

No unfortunatele incidents have taken place since India’s external affairs minister Somanahalli Mallaiah Krishna and his Pakistani counterpart Shah Qureshi engaged in a verbal duel on the former’s first visit to Islamabad in 2010. Hina Rabbani Khar, Pakistan’s incumbent foreign affairs minister, paid a visit to New Delhi soon after assuming her post and received a warm welcome there. The two explored the possibility of engagement on commercial instead of security issues which appears to be bearing fruit.

This month, Krishna paid his second, much anticipated second visit to the Pakistani capital, again focusing on trade issues but also hinting that Indo-Pakistani relations would not be held hostage by disputes over the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks which India suspects were carried out with Pakistani assistance.

The main problem in Indo-Pakistani relations is not terrorism or border disputes, rather a lack of trust and, sometimes, outright hatred between the two sides. Tension will remain, no matter how many issues are resolved, if this mutual suspicion persists. Public debate in both countries unfortunately fuels the distrust, tempting politicians to toe the line of nationalists and radicals instead of improving bilateral relations through compromise.

Changing Indian and Pakistani perceptions of their neighbors is no simply task. The relationship has been marked by conflict since independence. But it is the only way to stabilize ties for the long term. It is the responsibility of leaders in both countries to take the first steps toward peaceful coexistence.

Singh, Zardari Discuss Kashmir, Terrorist Dispute

“In 1947, India and Pakistan were born to conflict.” This is the first line on the flap and gist of Stanley Wolpert’s most recent book, India-Pakistan: Continued Conflict or Cooperation (2010). His assessment is correct because these two countries have a jeremiad of problems.

They have failed to resolve even a single contentious issue between them since independence. It’s not that they haven’t tried to sort out their problems but their structured diplomacy has failed to achieve any breakthroughs.

To improve the relationship, there needs to be a significant change in attitude. There appears to be the will on the part of both civilian governments to see this change through.

Whereas diplomacy used to be conducted behind closed doors, there is an effort today to engage the peoples of both nations. This form of engagement is visible at the highest levels of policy making where the leaders of India and Pakistan have met on the sidelines of multilateral summits and cricket matches.

Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari’s visit to India this weekend was of such an informal nature but he did have lunch with India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh. Last month, Singh met with Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani during the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, South Korea.

During their luncheon, Singh offered technical assistance to retrieve the remains of the Pakistani soldiers who, on the morning of Zardari’s visit to India, perished in an avalanche on the Siachen Glacier, east of the Line of Control in Kashmir.

India and Pakistan have held many talks about the demilitarization of Siachen but nothing has yet come of this dialogue.

Singh also raised the issue of Hafiz Muhammad Saeed whom India considers to be the brain behind the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. He earlier declared a “water jihad” against India and has terrorized his own people for seeking rapprochement with their neighboring state.

India and the United States have both asked for Hafiz Saeed’s extradition. Many in Pakistan consider this an affront to their sovereignty. The issue is not whether or not he should be handed over to another country however; the concern is the militant system which he runs.

No progress was made on either of these issues on Sunday but at least the leaders talked. Such a continued dialogue is needed to contain minor incidents and keep the border calm.

Singh Asserts Indian Leadership Again

India’s prime minister Manmohan Singh is something of a paradox. He is not a politician by profession, however he has proved to be a political Houdini especially when it comes to asserting his nation’s position internationally.

For example, on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit held in Bali, Indonesia, Singh was quick to assert India’s commercial interest in the South China Sea although it doesn’t share a border there. He put China in its place by emphasizing that the spats in the area should be resolved peacefully and in accordance with international sea laws.

Singh also appreciated the difficult political situation in Pakistan when he extended an olive branch to Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani on the sidelines of a South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation summit in the Maldives this week.

His assertiveness with regard to China and willingness to engage Pakistan, which is internally ravaged in many ways, demonstrate Singh’s ability to read the situations outside India perfectly.

China’s revisionist border stance in the South China Sea has invited criticism from countries ranging from Australia and Indonesia to South Korea and Taiwan. Indeed, virtually all nations bordering the Pacific Ocean in East Asia are ready to seek India’s and the United States’ help in containing China’s rise.

In Pakistan, ongoing counterterrorism efforts and America’s presence in Afghanistan have inspired the people to push their leadership for greater cooperation with New Delhi. The prime minister’s astute diplomatic conduct on the eve of both aforementioned conferences buttresses Indo-Pakistani rapprochement.

Singh’s ability to improve India’s standing in the world hasn’t always gone well with India’s middle class although it is doing increasingly well both within and outside of India. It’s for his very willingness to improve relations with neighboring Pakistan that Singh is perceived as a weak leader at home whereas he is respected as a statesman abroad. His international performance has won him personal accolades and an increased respect for India on the world stage.

As President Barack Obama put it during his most recent visit to India, when Manmohan Sigh speaks, the world listens. “India is emerging as a superpower and the world is fully aware of this reality,” he said.

Some of his critics may have already written his political obituary but India’s very nimble prime minister learned an important lesson from President Theodore Roosevelt. “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”

Middle Classes in Brazil, India Protest Corruption

The rising middle classes in Brazil and India, two major emerging markets, are stepping up the fight against corruption in their governments. Politically empowered by their education and financial independence, students, young urban professionals and entrepreneurs are speaking out against the graft that is so endemic in both countries’ myriad bureaucracies. Vested interests are moving slow to respond however. Part of the political class, so accustomed to profiting from positions of privilege, won’t change ways unless forced to. Read more “Middle Classes in Brazil, India Protest Corruption”

Singh Boosts Financial Support for Afghanistan

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India visited Afghanistan this week for the first time in nearly six years and brought with him promises of some $500 million in additional development aid. He was warmly welcomed in what President Hamid Karzai said was the prime minister’s “second home.” Singh in turn described Afghanistan as India’s “special friend,” insisting that it was “not like the United States.”

As the war in Afghanistan drags on and talks with the Taliban are probably underway, India is deeply concerned about the prospect of American troops starting their withdrawal after the summer.

India doesn’t believe in negotiating with the Taliban lest it herald their eventual return to power. Even if only elements of the Taliban are made part of the Afghan government, Pakistan would probably seek to regain its leverage while militant activity in the disputed territories of Kashmir could increase. It did during the Taliban’s previous reign. Read more “Singh Boosts Financial Support for Afghanistan”

India’s Internal Clash of Civilizations

It was no strange coincidence that the day the Indian parliament convened for the first time since American president Barack Obama addressed it this month, praising India’s rise as a world power, proceedings were disrupted because of a scam charged against telecom minister A. Raja.

It is an irony that a statesman of the stature of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh could not afford to dismiss Raja due to petty party politics.

India is nothing if not a kaleidoscope of superficial and competing images. It is the only country in the world, for instance, to simultaneously speak of ahimsa (nonviolence) and nuclear deterrence. However, the stark is too big and cracks are widening. Read more “India’s Internal Clash of Civilizations”

India’s Woodrow Wislon

“A week is a long time in politics,” said British prime minister and statesman Harold Wilson once. In the case of India’s prime minister, he may add humbly, “And a year is much too long a time to think ahead in politics.”

Nothing illustrates the problem of being Dr Manmohan Singh in Indian politics than the fact that he has never won an election in his life. Just 1 percent of the Indian population fancy him as the prime minister, according to a survey recently held by India Today. But at the same time the majority doesn’t mind having him in power.

A strange equation evolves where we have a competent person of unquestionable intellect like Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister of India while his popularity is soaring below. How did this happen?

The answer to the question is complicated. The nature of Indian politics, which is interesting but mystique, must first be considered.

Heading Manmohan Singh’s party is Sonia Gandhi who owes her position largely to the Gandhi surname. Although she steered the Congress Party to victory in 2004, Gandhi didn’t ascend to the prime ministership because of her foreign birth. She does continue to helm the affairs of the party however to ensure that another Gandhi, her son Rahul, may once day become candidate for the highest office. The India Today poll identified him as heir apparent and one of the most promising politicians in the country.

With Gandhi, in 2004, out of the picture however, India needed another leader, one able to protect its interest in a fast changing world where India is evermore pivotal to international trade. Singh, with his vast experience in academia and governance, seemed an obvious choice and most of the world’s leaders respect him as a senior statesman. Not without reason did Newsweek describe him as “the leader other leaders love.”

But back home, with Naxal violence mounting, the state of Kashmir plunged into chaos once again, China’s posture increasingly assertive, Pakistan’s ability to find “strategic depth” in Afghanistan by elbowing out India, and the United States reluctant to embrace the country as expected so that the prices of commodities are moving up, Singh’s position is anything but admirable.

This is where the prime minister has been most lacking. Had he been a professional politician, Sing would have known how to play to the gallery like his predecessor from the conservative Bharatiya Janata party, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Like Vajpayee, Singh commands respect and awe but unlike him, Singh lacks the charisma and ability to understand the nitty gritty of realpolitik which is very much an essential ingredient of leadership.

Manmohan Singh is a statesman of the highest order. There is no doubt that he was the one who steered India out of the woods of socialism with his policies of liberalization just as India became part of a globalized world economy. It has made India what it is today — a huge, growing economic power sitting at the most important tables of world affairs. However, Singh doesn’t appear to understand that all statesmen are politicians before anything else. In fact, that’s the problem of being a statesman. Many are despised during their lifetime as people can’t share their vision. As Winston Churchill pointed out, “Politicians think about the next elections, statesmen thinks about the next generation.” Manmohan Singh needs to understand this right now because most Indians, living in their liberalized economy, find it hard to think beyond the next day.

In conclusion, though Manmohan Singh’s strength isn’t history there is a lot that he can learn from the failures of Woodrow Wilson, president of the United States during the World War I. Wilson had a vision of a new world order, creating the League of Nations which earned him respect all over the world but not at home. He couldn’t convince Americans to even join his international organization, which left the president heartbroken and desolate.

Wilson’s Assistant Secretary of Navy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, understood how to balance statesmanship and domestic politics. He went on to handle two major crises: an economic depression and another world war. Wilson’s portrait hung in Roosevelt’s office as a constant reminder of the need to consider public opinion.

Roosevelt managed to mobilize the nation to enact the policies he wanted and knew how to speak to the people directly. He was idealistic in his goals but pragmatic about his means. Manmohan Singh is no FDR but could fail very much like Wilson did. Both are from academic backgrounds and both had a vision of the world that was idealistic, perhaps naive. Both, moreover, lacked the political craftiness to make such visions come true. The future will tell whether Singh indeed goes on to be remembered as India’s Woodrow Wilson.

India Matters

Reaffirming American relations with India was one of the few foreign policy successes of the Bush Administration. A nuclear power with an impressive but stable economic growth, India is already the South Asian superpower and likely to become more than that. It works with Brazil and Russia and even with China (the so-called “BRIC”) to strengthen its international position and it plays a pivotal, albeit an oftentimes overlooked, role in the Middle East.

President Obama was wise to invite his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh for the White House’s first state dinner on November 24 — a clear sign that the current administration also intends for India to be part of its “multilateral” strategy. According to the president, India is “indispensable” in the building of “a future of security and prosperity for all nations.”

Singh, as finance minister during the first half of the 1990s, broke with India’s past of moderate socialism and instituted a series of reforms that carried the country out of recession. As prime minister, he continues to promote privatization and free trade while while investing generously in a massive campaign against poverty. Obama recognized these achievements when he declared that, “[a]s leading economies, the United States and India can strengthen the global economic recovery, promote trade that creates jobs for both our people, and pursue growth that is balanced and sustained.”

In another one of the president’s crusades, bringing proliferation to a halt, he also acknowledged the importance of India. “As nuclear powers, we can be full partners in preventing the spread of the world’s most deadly weapons, securing loose nuclear materials from terrorists, and pursuing our shared vision of a world without nuclear weapons.” Both countries have known the “pain and anguish of terrorism,” the president spoke, so they must stand together to “promote the development and prosperity that undermines violent extremism.”

Prime Minister Singh responded in kind when he opined that India and the United States are “bound together” by common values and a shared dedication “to meet [the] challenges of a fast-changing world in this twenty-first century.”

There is an elephant in the room that neither leader spoke of. America is investing in Pakistan to support its war on terror at a time when India and Pakistan are accusing one another of involvements in terrorist attacks in their countries. After fighting three wars the two countries are still engaged in something of a nuclear cold war. Pervez Hoodbhoy notes however on the New Atlanticist, that most of India “would like to forget that Pakistan exists.” Fast on its way to become a true superpower, India “has no need to engage a struggling Pakistan with its endless litany of problems,” according to Hoodbhoy.

That’s not how Pakistan sees it. Islamabad is by no means comfortable with India’s newfound American approval. The Obama Administration will have to carefully balance its commitment to Pakistan against its relationship with India. It needs the first to bring the war in Afghanistan to a successful end but once that’s done, India is really the onle country in South Asia that matters.