India’s glaring confidence deficit

Expert guest Sadanand Dhumme asks if it is still possible to have a sane conversation about Pakistan in India?

If the hyperventilating shouting matches that pass for TV news programmes are anything to go by, it’s hard to answer in the affirmative.

Earlier this month, former cricketer and current Congress Party politician Navjot Singh Sidhu riled both TV studio generals and Twitter hashtag warriors with perfectly anodyne observations about India’s western neighbour at a literature festival in Kasauli. In a discussion about Punjabiyat – the common culture of Punjabis on either side of the border – Sidhu pointed out that in many ways he feels more at home in Pakistan than in Tamil Nadu.

In Tamil Nadu, said Sidhu, “the culture is totally different.” He does not speak Tamil, and has only a limited appetite for idlis. Across the border, in Pakistan, they even share the same swear words.

That such commonplace observations can induce outrage, even if only of the synthetic variety, suggests how much India’s national discourse on Pakistan has deteriorated in recent years. This ought to concern not just those who prefer butter chicken to butter masala dosa. A more even-keeled approach to Pakistan – one that eschews both the breathless sentimentalism of the pappi-jhappi crowd and the clownish fulminations of studio generals – is in India’s own best interest.

The principles underlying this commonsensical approach are simple. Those Pakistanis who work against India – primarily the military and the witches brew of jihadist groups it has nurtured – do not deserve a shred of empathy. But with ordinary Pakistanis India ought to take the opposite tack. They are not an enemy people, merely estranged cousins who took a different path. You don’t need to be a woolly-headed peacenik who lights candles at the Wagah border to wish them well.

At first glance this approach may carry the taint of sentimentalism, but in reality it’s grounded in plain facts.

For starters, Pakistan may be a troubled nation but it’s not about to disappear any time soon. For all its problems – overbearing generals, a stuttering economy, fundamentalist mullahs, restive ethnic minority groups – Pakistan has endured for nearly 50 years since the secession of Bangladesh.

Indeed, in some ways Pakistan is a more coherent political entity than India. The vast majority of Pakistanis share the faith of Islam and the language of Urdu, albeit as a lingua franca rather than as a native tongue. India cannot simply wish away the fact that it will likely share a border with a nuclear-armed nation of more than 200 million people for a long time to come.

Only Pakistan can fix its myriad problems, but if it manages to become a relatively stable and prosperous country that focusses on exporting garments rather than jihad, India will unquestionably be among the biggest beneficiaries. Indians ought to root for Pakistan growing richer, stabler and more democratic. We can call this hope “getting to Canada.”

Evidence suggests that the average Pakistani bears no hostility towards India. Over the past decade, both the left-of-centre Pakistan Peoples Party and the right-of-centre Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) have found that promising improved relations with India is a vote getter. Historically speaking, the parts of undivided India that became Pakistan had no appetite for Partition until shortly before it occurred. In undivided Punjab, the Unionist party dominated by Muslim, Hindu and Sikh landlords held sway until provincial elections in 1946.

To be sure, the bloodletting that accompanied Partition created a measure of ill-will on both sides of the border. But, as the Pakistani scholar-diplomat Husain Haqqani points out in his fine book, Reimagining Pakistan, for the most part anti-Indian sentiment does not occur naturally in Pakistan. It is fostered by the army and its sympathisers as part of an ill-conceived attempt to yoke the argument that drove Partition to a modern nation-building project.

A more self-confident India would couple a brass-knuckle approach to terrorism with an expansive embrace of talented Pakistanis. Instead of calling for Pakistani movie stars to be banished from Bollywood and cricketers to be banned from the Indian Premier League, India ought to actively woo them. Competition invariably raises standards. The added undercurrent of rivalry between Indians and Pakistanis would raise it more sharply still. India would be enriched by hosting more Pakistani writers, musicians, actors and cricketers.

Instead of viewing Pakistanis as potential interlopers, India should aspire to be the stage on which the brightest talent from across the subcontinent shines. The US performs a similar function for Canada; Australia does the same for New Zealand. Those who believe India ought to shun Pakistanis are only hurting themselves, and stunting India’s soft power in one of the few countries genuinely receptive to it.

Contrast this idea of an open and self-confident India with the current reality. TV anchors throw tantrums over the most innocuous praise for Pakistan. The ruling party’s troll factory has perfected the art of turning any visit to that country by an opposition politician into a lurid conspiracy against the Indian government. The government diminishes itself by making ordinary Pakistanis seeking medical treatment in India grovel for visas. This is not how aspiring great powers behave. These are hallmarks of the deeply insecure.

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