Sunday, December 21, 2014

Mehta's essay on Pakistan: A brief critique

I generally enjoy reading Pratap Bhanu Mehta's essays, specially his always trenchant analysis of Indian politics.  His essay last week is a fine exemplar, outlining the deeper institutional difficulties that face Prime Minister Modi, which Modi unfortunately does not seem to be paying much attention to.  Mehta's position is always that of a true Liberal, and he appears not to take a position first and let the analysis follow, but decide on his position based on his analysis.  Such analytical commitment and honesty is rare anywhere but especially in India.

But Liberalism has serious flaws when it comes to understanding international politics. I had earlier posted a brief comment on another essay of his where I disagreed with his view of Indian policy on Pakistan, which he characterized as Realism.  His latest essay gives me another chance to provide a brief Realist critique of the Liberal view of India-Pakistan relations.

Essentially, Mehta argues that Pakistan has been depending on the wrong partners -- the US, China and Saudi Arabia -- ever since independence. The only alternative Pakistanis are able to conceive is going back to Jinnah but this provides no answers for a forward-looking Pakistan.  Instead, Mehta argues, Pakistan should seek India's partnership by abjuring violence and restoring the 'natural geography' of trade in the region.

But what Mehta finds difficult to explain in Pakistan's behaviour is not that difficult to understand from a Realist perspective. Several years ago, I wrote a two part essay in Strategic Analysis (here and here, reprinted as a chapter later in Kanti Bajpai and Siddharth Mallavarapu's anthology of Indian writings on international relations theory) arguing that much of Pakistan's foreign policy can be explained by the unequal distribution of power in the region and its consequence: Pakistan's insecurity.  Pakistan seeks external partners because it cannot counter India with its internal resources.  Asking Pakistan to abandon its allies and partner with India is futile, irrespective of how logical it might seem from an outsider's view. From Islamabad's perspective, talking about the 'natural geography of trade' in the region is simply the Liberal equivalent of the Hindu Right's 'ahkand bharat' -- it would be seen as a cover for Indian hegemony.  And before we think of this as a Pakistani peculiarity, remember that all of India's smaller neighbours have the same worry about Indian dominance, though they have less domestic capacity to counter it than Pakistan and not as much choice in attracting foreign partners (though many of them have tried, and continue to do so).  Even after accounting for 'Indian gracelessness', Pakistan's fear of India might appear exaggerated from an Indian perspective, or even instrumental if looked at as consequent upon the institutional interest of Pakistan's security sector, but we need to accept its reality rather than ignore it if for no other reason than that it is not in our power to change it, residing as it does in the natural material inequality of the region.  As India grows faster than Pakistan, a reversal of pattern of the first several decades of independence, this inequality will only grow and with it Pakistan's insecurity.

The Liberal assumption that states should cooperate because it is mutually beneficial was countered almost three decades ago by Joseph Grieco who argued that states worry too much about relative gains to cooperate even if there are absolute gains to be had.  In other words, while it might be rational to cooperate because both sides will benefit, states worry that one side will benefit more and would rather forgo any benefit than let another state (especially an adversarial one) gain more.  This logic is perfectly applicable to India and South Asia, and especially to Pakistan.  Thus the problem with Mehta's analysis (as well as other Indian Liberals who argue along the same lines) is not so much that they are wrong about the benefits that Pakistan might gain but that they ignore the consequences of Pakistan's insecurity which makes such cooperation highly unlikely and might indeed heighten that insecurity.

So what can India do?  Unfortunately, very little.  Non-reciprocity principles (such as the Gujral doctrine) can help a bit but will not completely eliminate the problem.  We have little choice but to accept that Pakistan will continue to be insecure but we can attempt to modify how it vents its insecurity.  Our policies should attempt to warn off Pakistan that we will not permit it to manifest its insecurity by spilling Indian blood through a strategy to deter Pakistani terrorism but we cannot hope to eliminate Pakistani insecurity and its consequences.  As Dirty Harry would say "Man's got to know his limitations".

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