G R O U N D   Z E R O

ground zero
The view from inside Pakistan
There is a clear disconnect in Pakistan between what people think about relations with India and the confrontationist approach adopted by their government. In fact, most look upon India as the aggressor.
Raj chengappa

Raj chengappaAt school, among the many short stories I studied the one that made a lasting impression was 'Purdah'. It was a simple story of how a family hid its poverty by hanging a fancy curtain on its front door to veil the misery inside. Travelling on the Lahore-Islamabad motorway last week, I was reminded of this story. The motorway is Pakistan’s showpiece and is superbly maintained. The speed limit of 120 kmph meant my 360 km drive to Islamabad took only three and a half hours. While my journey from Chandigarh to the Wagah border, around 300 km, had taken five.

Yet the motorway hides much of the strife and suffering Pakistan is currently experiencing. Pull over to one of the many dhabas on the highway and the sheen disappears. The acute power shortage meant that none of the air-conditioners worked and the odd fan that ran on generators was unable to blow away the fetid air. Like in India, with the economy tanking, the Pakistan rupee has been in free fall and now a dollar fetches around Rs 100.

The well-to-do, who zoom around in fancy SUVs, still live comfortably. But they form only a small percentage. The masses suffer from power and water shortages, unemployment, rising prices and appear to live in quiet desperation. That’s why in the recent general elections the big issue was governance and Asif Zardari’s PPP was voted out of power. On the other hand, the PML-Q won handsomely in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, because it had delivered.

A homeless woman with her child in Lahore. About 22 per cent population lives in poverty.
A homeless woman with her child in Lahore. About 22 per cent population lives in poverty. —AFP

While delivering the Distinguished Speakers Series lecture jointly organised by the Jinnah Institute and the Australia-India Institute in Islamabad, I realised the audience was puzzled over the recent rise of tensions between India and Pakistan on the Line of Control. Many asked me why India was being so hostile when both sides had to focus on issues like development.

There was a clear disconnect between what they thought about relations with India and the confrontationist approach adopted by the Pakistan government. Instead, surprisingly, most looked upon India as the aggressor. Defence Minister AK Antony’s shifting statements in Parliament over the attack on the LoC that saw five Indian soldiers being killed was cited as proof of India’s duplicity.

The perception was that the Indian Army had become a major force in determining India's foreign policy issues, particularly on Pakistan. Army Chief Bikram Singh's public statement after the LoC attacks saying that India would respond in kind was seen as an unnecessary act of provocation. There was little comprehension of the depth of anger in India over the 26/11 Mumbai attacks or the recent LoC violations and the need for the Pakistan establishment to bring the perpetrators to book.

There was a great deal of interest in the rise of Narendra Modi and whether the BJP would win the 2014 General Election under his leadership. And whether the UPA government would field Rahul Gandhi as Prime Minister to counter Modi. They also wanted to know the reasons why the Indian economy, whose growth they had watched with a mix of admiration and envy, was suddenly experiencing a downturn.

It was when I told them that India continued to view Pakistan in a negative light because it hadn't taken action against cross-border terror groups that I saw sparks of anger. At one stage I said that while I advocated talks between the two Prime Ministers when they met in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, if Pakistan didn't turn the terror tap off and continued to needle India, we could cut off relations with them completely with no impact to us. Pakistan could no more hinder our progress. That was seen as a sign of “Indian arrogance” by someone in the audience. I realised then that many Pakistanis disliked India treating them as a smaller neighbour and wanted parity.

Yet, if India is hard-focused on solving its internal problems, so is Pakistan. Their morning newspapers carried reports of how Karachi was on the brink of anarchy and there was need for the army to be called in. There were daily reports of sectarian violence in some parts of the country. There were TV talk shows on whether Sharif was able to handle the multifarious crises Pakistan faces. Debates were held on Pakistan’s policy towards India and Afghanistan. I found the press in Pakistan as lively and rumbustious as that in India.

Most of all, I saw a hope that the new government would pull Pakistan out of the morass. In my previous visits to Pakistan not long ago, people appeared to be downbeat, what with so much internal strife and the economy on a skidrow. Vis-a-vis India, many suspected it wanted to split Pakistan further, or nurtured ambitions of a 'Grander India'. I stressed the point that Partition could not be undone, and that a peaceful Pakistan would only be in India’s interest. Much, however, depends on the skills of Nawaz Sharif to steer them through the difficult times. I wish the people of Pakistan well.



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