Broadly speaking, there are four constituent units to this India-Pakistan business. Whether we talk peace or fight war has depended on how those four have aligned.
The four units: on the India side, the people and their government; on the Pakistani side, the state—the amalgam of civilians and the military—and the people.
We don’t have peace—a stable, durable peace, i.e. normality—because the four have never aligned in the right way.
When leaders of both sides have wanted to talk peace, one or the other public has remained unconvinced. When one side has had both the state and society in alignment, the other side has had a disconnect between its leadership and the people.
Because the four have never aligned in the right way, there has been no peace.
Conversely, and quite happily, the four have never aligned in the wrong way either. We’ve never been at a stage where both states and societies have wanted all-out war, a fight to the finish.
And because the four have never aligned in the wrong way, we’re all still around to reflect on the peculiarity of our South Asian condition: not smart enough to find peace, not insane enough to fight war unrestrained.
But the past isn’t necessarily the future, and if you look hard enough, there are signs of change in how those constituent units behave. And the change not in a good way.
Curiously, and contrary to present suggestions, the states are pretty much sticking to their model of sustainable conflict: don’t do anything insane and don’t try and be a hero.
Whatever you believe about who in Pakistan green-lighted Mumbai, Pathankot, or Uri, you can’t believe that the purpose was to trigger war. At best it was to dissuade anyone with funny ideas of peace breaking out.
That makes sense: institutional self-preservation, internal predominance, and the protection of corporate interests mean the military here can’t want a war with India. Needing an enemy is different to fighting that enemy unconstrained.
Same goes for the Indian state: what it wants—to become an economic powerhouse and a global player—necessarily means it can’t want an all-out war with Pakistan. The two are mutually exclusive and in any case what the hell does India get by clobbering Pakistan, assuming it can?
But where Pakistan and India may be calibrated and calculated in their state-to-state responses and dealings, they are careless with their populations. And therein lies the danger.
Specifically, both states are being too casual about weaponising their societies and public opinions against the other country.
Pakistan’s “RAW agent” bogey
Let’s start with Pakistan. For years now, possibly since the late 90s, there has been a mainstream political consensus: normalisation of ties with India is fundamental to our security and prosperity.
The terms on which that could work may be contested, but even former cricketer and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party chief Imran Khan isn’t immune to the civilian logic on India. Hard fought and still raw, the internal political consensus is now under threat.
And you don’t have to look far for the culprit: the civil-military divide.
Not content with having won the war—prime minister Nawaz Sharif has nil influence on foreign policy and national security—there has been an overkill: making sure that Sharif can’t even be in a position to make a comeback.
From agents of India’s spy agency Research and Analysis Wing in Sharif’s sugar mills to conspiracies of steel-mill monopolies to the relentless linking of Sharif to Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, all of it has worked to put Sharif in a position where he can’t even talk about India sensibly anymore.
The same goes for the few heroic voices left in society—tarred deliberately and insistently with the India brush to sabotage their appeals to the public.
Pakistan People’s Party chief Bilawal Bhutto foolishly is adding to the confusion and undoing the good work of his late mother Benazir Bhutto, while the Muttahida Qaumi Movement and Awami National Party have been fatally undermined by their Indian and Afghan connections respectively.
The net effect is the possibility of an unraveling of a critical political consensus in Pakistan—that peace with India is both desirable and necessary. And that unraveling comes when the weaponisation of swathes of society, via the jihad complex and the mosque-madrassa-social welfare network, is at a peak.
Don’t count on Pakistanis automatically settling for “no war” anymore.
The “nationalist” Indian media
In India, too, a people problem is evident. It makes sense: a rising country is prickly about its weaknesses and determined to showcase its strengths. The wild and woolly Indian media is essentially catering to that market.
Pakistanis only notice the Pakistan-related stuff, but Indian parents arrested in Oslo by child services and an Indian diplomat arrested in New York have attracted an overwhelming and rough Indian media response.
When it comes to anything related to Pakistan, Indian media’s reaction is worse many times over. You can even see how an Indian leadership may be willing to deploy public opinion as a weapon: Look, don’t do the stuff you’re doing because our options are narrowing, India could be signaling to Pakistan by helping stoke the media flames at home.
That may even seem like a good idea to the Indian state in a world of few good options, a hawkish leader at the helm or not. Suffice to say that it would leave India’s leaders with even fewer options eventually.
So, yeah, worry. Not because the states have become crazy, but because the states may have conspired to let loose their own people. And with it, the possibility of the four constituent units in India and Pakistan aligning in a good way is becoming more distant.