Probably the most significant utterance made by General Pervez Musharraf during the press conference that followed his Camp David meeting with President George Bush went completely unnoticed by the press. At one point, after President Bush declared that he is “hopeful that the two countries will deepen their engagement on all issues, including Kashmir,” the General dutifully intoned his hope that a solution would be found, but nevertheless felt constrained to remind Mr. Bush that Pakistan has “our sovereign equality to guard, vis-a-vis India.”
This remark went unnoticed primarily because most media people are either too young or too historically naive to understand its implications. It was Musharraf’s way of saying that Pakistan’s obsession with the “India threat” remains alive and kicking. As long as it does, the chances for peace and reconciliation between the two major powers in South Asia are not great. For this obsession has haunted Pakistan’s political culture since it attained Independence in 1947, and has fueled all of the wars and near-wars that have been waged between India and Pakistan over the ensuing half-century.
What is the India Obsession? The political divide between Hindus and Muslims originally arose from the fact that for centuries a Muslim minority had enjoyed political hegemony over the Subcontinent’s Hindu majority. Since the dawning of modern times, however, with the gradual diffusion of representative government, this Hindu majority found the means to make their numbers politically count. Over the last century prior to Independence, as the power of the demographic majority ramified, the Muslim elites found their political dominance increasingly challenged. Many perceptive Muslims (such as Sir Syed Ahmad Khan.) saw the handwriting on the wall unless somehow they could achieve a relationship with the emerging Hindu majority which struck a balance between Muslim political importance and Hindu demographic importance. While the struggle against British colonialism was taking root, a sub-plot of political maneuvering was simultaneously occurring between the Subcontinent’s increasingly strident Muslim leadership (personified by Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Liaqat Ali Khan) and an increasingly aroused and determined Hindu-based leadership (personified by Tilak and Gokhale, Gandhi and Nehru) whose differences were so intractable that partitioning India into two separate and ethnically distinct states turned out to be the only way that imagined Muslim fears of Hindu demographic inundation could be assuaged.
Unfortunately, However, the fear of Hindu inundation did not end with Partition. This despite the fact that the secular, democratic leadership which emerged in India under Nehru and the Congress Party showed no inclination whatsoever to reabsorb Muslim Pakistan back into the Indian Union. Many Indians, in fact, concluded that building the Indian nation minus the fanaticism and chauvinism engendered by communal conflict was a positive consequence of Partition.
The Kashmir conflict, however, provided a context for propagating the Hindu Threat on both sides of the international border, but especially in Pakistan. In part this stemmed from what can only be called the deleterious consequences of a prolonged, communally-driven political psychopathology. In part it also stemmed from the successful exploitation of this political bugaboo by the Pakistani military, in concert with the civil service cadres inherited from colonial rule, and the feudalistic landed elite in the western and northwestern provinces, to justify preventing the evolution of a viable secular parliamentary democratic system of government. Claims on Kashmir enabled this authoritarian cabal to create a military machine out of all proportion to Pakistan’s strategic requirements which was and continues to be employed to make war on India ostensibly in the name of Kashmir. In reality, however, it is nothing more than a quixotic perpetuation of the old Separatist thirst for political parity with demographically (and nowadays politically and economically) dominant India. Kashmir could be settled overnight if there were not a section of Pakistani political society that feeds off it for domestic political reasons.
America’s tragedy was its decision to nourish the megalomaniacal fantasies of Pakistan’s anti-democratic elites by sucking Pakistan into its militarized Cold War grand strategy. Each infusion of anti-Communist armaments reinforced the power of Pakistan’s authoritarian ruling classes, fed their anti-Indian inferiority complex and eventuated ultimately in three intraregional wars, in Kargil, in a perpetual, still continuing pattern of military provocations and state-sponsored cross-border terrorism, and the development of nuclear weapons.
This is an old story which need not be further elaborated here. General Musharraf’s visit to Camp David was initially seen as a potential departure from the old ways of doing business. Instead, all signs indicate that we face more of the same. The aid package offered to Pakistan follows the same misguided pattern as all of its predecessors. At least half of the amount will go for military assistance, the very thing that economically desperate and politically frail Pakistan needs the least, and indeed has always needed the least. In the past, such deals have eventually led to some kind of miliary confrontation with India because it meant a fresh infusion of military wherewithal with which the Generals could pursue their political ambitions. President Musharraf’s assertion that any concessions made to American concerns does not mean Pakistan will abandon its obsession with the mythical Indian threat which nurtures and legitimizes the Pakistani military’s monopolization of political power has an ominous ring.
It reeks of the self-aggrandizing preoccupations and jingoistic political illusions which continue to pervade the ranks of the extra-parliamentary junta who rule Pakistan. The willingness of the Bush administration to ignore the implications of President Musharraf’s words and deeds simply paves the way for still another round of the same cycle of spin-driven rhetoric followed by frustration, disillusionment and regional political instability which characterized all of its predecessors.
Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland (June 29th) has referred to the placatory pursuit of Musharraf as “Fool’s Gold.” It is an apt phrase. Hoagland notes that American officials themselves were privately disappointed by the paucity of what the General gave in return “for the cash and glory conferred on him.” In other words, the American preoccupation with militarized diplomacy once again induced them to be taken in by the siren song of a friendly military dictator who promises to produce. in his words, “sustainable democracy” by and by.
What of Indian-American relations in the aftermath of Mr. Musharraf’s recent yatra? It will at the least slow down progress toward building the vaunted new strategic relationship between the two countries. The Bush-Musharraf tryst reveals that Cold War baggage remains embedded in the American diplomatic culture. Certainly it survives in the Pentagon and undoubtedly in the ranks of the neoconservative set that has settled in around President Bush. In the circumstances, India will be compelled to adopt a wait-and-see posture pending some indication of whether Mr. Musharraf will (a) keep his promises, and/or (b) will be able to survive the slings and arrows of political dissent, jihadism and economic collapse that now confront him. The inevitable wait will provide India with an opportunity to test its own political maturity and formulate policies that will maximize its own regional and global interests. This can be achieved from a position of strength, as India has now reached the level of a mature nation-state, well on the road to economic prosperity, political stability and international respect.
HAROLD A. GOULD is visiting scholar in the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Virginia. Email: email@example.com.