A good peace is a bargain, a better peace is an understanding and the best peace is an agreement. As far as Pakistan and India are concerned, a strong argument can be made that a lot needs to change before both sides can take even the first steps towards some kind of a bargain, a deal, a give and take. For the current mood on both sides of the border is generally not of bargaining but haggling, not dealing but dallying, not giving but taking.
The question is what must change before there is an environment conducive for peace to take root. Analysts, diplomats, impassioned insiders and interested outsiders, everyone seems to have attempted to find an answer. Many have actually come up with helpful suggestions. Some of these suggestions, indeed, have already worked, even though by default. Take, for instance, the need for both societies to open up to each other in order to overcome deep-seated prejudices and reality distorting stereotypes. The two states have done precious little to ease travel restrictions, to facilitate the movement of books and newspapers across their fenced border and to allow the exchange of ideas between citizens on a sustained, institutionalised basis.
However, it has been the information and communication revolution, and rising civic activism that have created a space shared by the people from both countries, or at the least by a tiny clique among them, where the states, their borders and their restrictive writs don’t matter. When we can’t get an Indian newspaper, we read its Internet edition; when citizen groups can’t meet in Delhi or Lahore, they can always hold a meeting in Kathmandu or Colombo.
Some people may turn back and say that all such interactions – intellectual and physical – are confined to a bubble which does not have anything to do with the reality that is being represented, let alone rectified. And, like all bubbles, it is vulnerable to a mere prick of the real. The reality, they point out, is that the vast majorities of people in the two countries remain at best indifferent and at worst hostile to each other. If anything has changed at all, they argue, it has not changed for the better. For instance, there may have been a reversal of fortunes, so to speak. Most Indians, nowadays, display a strong aversion to anything with a Made in Pakistan mark, except our singers and musicians, exactly the way most Pakistanis used to hate everything Indian, except movies made in Mumbai.
Like all arguments, though, it is only half valid and has another side which is not so bleak. Many Pakistanis exposed to the Indian media are enamoured by the prosperity that the enemy on the other side of the fence has achieved over the last two decades. Many in the Pakistani intelligentsia are fascinated by the sustained Indian democracy, which chugs along merrily through one election cycle after another despite its endemic corruption, its myriad fissures and frictions over religion, caste and ideology and its endless bickering over the distribution of spoils of a raging economy.
On the Indian side, the enemy no longer looks as formidable as it did until recently. In spite of our nukes, we are no longer hovering over the Indian radar as an ominous omnipresence. Either the Indian horizon has become large enough to be able to see us for our real size or we have successfully diminished our stature by playing the bad guy for far too long. No matter what the case, the net result is that today’s India sees Pakistan as a nuisance that can be ignored without too much discomfit.
Decidedly, positive feelings about the Indian economy and democracy do not go very far in making almost the entire Indian state and most of Indian society palatable for most Pakistanis. And no matter how indifferent Indians want to become towards Pakistanis, they cannot get rid of their next-door neighbour that still has the capacity to inflict serious damage on their state and society, both in a direct confrontation and through a hundred mutinies by proxy as has been the case since long.
But it is here that an unlikely window of opportunity opens itself. India’s economic success and the strength of its democratic institutions, for example, can serve as sources of inspiration for Pakistan to follow. If we, too, can invest in human resources as aggressively as many regions in India have done; if we can create a peaceful environment in our cities which allows investment and commerce to prosper as cities like Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad have done; if we can have the same kind of certainty about election cycles as India does, the same level of trust in our voting systems as Indians have and the same amount of confidence in the institutions of the state observing their boundaries as they have shown in India — these are certainly great things to learn and follow.
There is admittedly much that India and the Indians have to ponder about. Scores of millions in that country have, after all, failed to partake in the spoils of its economic boom and its democratic experience. But the popular indifference among Indians towards Pakistan, perversely, can be helpful for the Indian government vis-à-vis Pakistan. The cut-to-size Pakistan is no longer an issue in India that decides the fate of political parties and leaders as it used to in the distant past. So, this Indian government, and the next, should not worry about popular reaction, if and when it decides to make peace with Pakistan.
The New York meeting between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh marks the beginnings of haggling that both countries are required to do if they have to arrive at some kind of bargain. Even the haggling has not happened for quite some time now. The next step, we hope, will come as an honest give and take, and a good peace. To turn this into the best peace that there can possibly be the two sides must open venues for better mutual understanding and an eventual agreement on how best to harness South Asia’s resources for the collective good of the people of the region.