By Swapan Dasgupta
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh should thank the ineptitude of the Pakistan cricket team for allowing his Mohali sideshow to be treated with relative indulgence by the Indian people. Had Shahid Afridi's side held on to the first of the four chances offered by Sachin Tendulkar in his uncharacteristically scratchy innings, the outcome of World Cup semi-final may not have been dissimilar to the earlier exercises in cricket diplomacy. Yet, to be charitable, the Prime Minister's long spell of political misfortune had to end sometime. And it was just as well it happened in Mohali.
This is not to endorse Pakistan Prime Minister Yusuf Gillani's assessment that the so-called 'spirit of Mohali' is a win-win for both sides. For Pakistan, the whispered exchanges before the slog overs and the interactions over tandoori chicken marked a great step forward. In India's case, the jury is still out.
To begin with, it reinforced the Pakistani success in getting India to deepen its faith in a resumed 'composite' dialogue under a different name. In short, India's post-26/11 stand that the composite dialogue was on hold until Pakistan took "credible and verifiable" measures against cross-border terrorism, was shown up to be empty bluster. Pakistan had always insisted that the adventurism of non-state players must not hold diplomacy to ransom. After Thimpu, Islamabad can afford to gloat quietly in the realisation that not only do Hindus not have a sense of history; they are also incapable of withstanding sustained pressure. India, it is aware, is so unlike the Pakistan establishment that still nurtures unhappy memories of the ignominious surrender in Dhaka, 40 years ago.
Of course, Pakistan always knew that India's PM and its National Security Adviser were inclined to turn the other cheek. For the duo (or so it seems), conflict is abhorrent not least because it diverts attention from the more worthwhile business of economic growth and because it makes the international community edgy. This is not an irrational position and suggests a certain nobility of purpose. The problem is that India is confronted by two difficult neighbours: one which is moving purposefully towards recreating the Middle Kingdom and another that conducts itself as both a clever rogue and a habitual delinquent.
Coping with the challenge of the first requires guile, tact and oodles of resilience—attributes that the India doesn't naturally possess. Handling Islamabad is, however, even more problematic. The erosion of the West's self-confidence in Afghanistan has resulted in growing pressure on India to somehow accommodate Pakistan. The underlying assumption is that the easing of Indo-Pak tensions will encourage Pakistan to play a more constructive role in Afghanistan and act meaningfully against Islamist terror groups without "looking both ways"—David Cameron's telling phrase. Although the West doesn't openly advocate India conceding ground in Kashmir, it constitutes a hidden pillar of its larger AfPak policy.
The extent to which pressures from the West played a part in creating the Thimpu and Mohali spirits will always remain in the realms of conjecture. The NSA's comment to an American diplomat in February 2010 (as revealed in the cables released by WikiLeaks) that "A peaceful, stable Pakistan is in our interest; we will work at it even if they make it hard for us" may well suggest a home-grown doctrine based on lofty asymmetry. It certainly governed the infamous Sharm-el-Sheikh declaration that triggered a domestic furore and led to even the Congress distancing itself from the high-minded PM. The question, however, remains: if India takes two steps forward, can Pakistan reciprocate with at least one step?
The answer isn't encouraging. For a start, the balance of power between the civilian government and the Pakistan military is still being negotiated. The optimism that an onrush of democracy in Pakistan had made it difficult for the military to wield real power has turned out to be premature. Under General Kayani, the military has clawed its way back to recover much of the ground it lost in the last days of General Musharraf.
There is also precious little to suggest that the ISI has disowned the terror groups it nurtured for action in both Afghanistan and India. Some of the groups may have outgrown its military patrons—just as the LTTE outgrew India. It is also possible that the growth of Islamism in civil society makes it difficult for the ISI to exercise total control over the genie it unleashed. Whatever the details of this shifting relationship, it has made it extremely difficult for Pakistan (assuming its intentions are above board) to deliver on its commitments. The scope for institutional duplicity has, in fact, been considerably enhanced by the state of flux within Pakistan.
It is highly unlikely that India's PM is unaware of the pitfalls of dealing with an unstable Pakistan. The plodding approach that seemed written into the U-turn at Thimpu was perhaps a way of testing the waters. At Mohali, however, the PM pressed the accelerator and quite inexplicably raised the profile and the expectations from a fragile Indo-Pak bonhomie.
Was the decision governed by diplomatic calculations? Or, was it an attempt by a beleaguered PM to somehow regain the domestic initiative by showing his capacity for bold, decisive action? If it was the latter, we may be seeing the beginning of endgame for Manmohan Singh.