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It was the simplicity of the advice offered by prime minister Mrs Indira Gandhi to her Pakistani dinner guest that intrigued him: ‘Janta koh mat bholeyega/ Don’t forget the public.’ He wondered why she needed to repeat that during the meal, until he realised that she was subtly giving him a primary lesson in politics.  She knew that no matter how much the West and Russia worshipped her as the Devi of Democracy, her power came from her own voters, not theirs.

Other leaders have not been as circumspect. Many, too many, have been lulled like the flattered crow in Aesop’s fables into opening their beaks. US president Richard Nixon believed that his globe-trotting years when Vice-President gave him a unique insight into international politics.  As president, he repaired relations with Russia, reached out to North Vietnam, and became the first US president to visit Israel.  The cusp of his diplomatic endeavours was undoubtedly the breakthrough with the People’s Republic of China in 1971, for which he used Romania and in parallel Pakistan as go-betweens. He paid the price domestically with Watergate.

Others have been tempted to follow suit. UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher pursued policies regarding the European Union with a vigour that made her colleagues in the House of Commons feel neglected. (She had already made them feel inconsequential.) In the end, she was brought down not by a vote of no-confidence by the House of Commons but by conspirators in her own Conservative party. They felt that she had journeyed too far from Westminster. In time, Mrs Theresa May suffered at the hands of her own Brutuses.

Their predecessor Harold Macmillan was once the subject of a Peter Sellers’s lampoon in which Sellers, imitating Macmillan’s gravitas, mumbled: ‘Great Britain is ideally placed to act as the honest broker in Europe. For none could be more honest, and none could be broker.’

That would seem to fit Pakistan. It is ideally placed to be the honest broker in the region, for no one could be more honest than prime minister Imran Khan, and no nation could be broker.

Prime minister Imran Khan’s mission is to cement peace between an irascible, nouveau riche Arab trillionaire and the modern heirs to Cyrus the Great. If it succeeds, the triumph will have three fathers – Saudi Arabia, Iran and himself. If it fails, that orphan will be his to rear as a sole parent.  

Countries mired in bilateral conflict prefer to resolve their issues directly, without the mediation of a third party. There is a reason for this.  No state can guarantee performance by another. At best, a broker can facilitate agreement, not ensure compliance. In modern times, countries no longer feel bound by treaties. They abrogate them on a whim.  Take the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA), signed in 2015 by the five permanent members of the Security Council (US, Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom), plus the European Union and Germany.  In 2018, President Trump peremptorily withdrew from the sept-partite agreement. The JCPA subsided rapidly into inaction. Worse, none of the other signatories would coerce the US into returning to the Plan. Nor did they allow the agreement to lapse. It hangs in the air like some undead mushroom cloud.

Take the Shimla agreement of 1972 and its sequitur the Lahore Declaration of 1999, signed off by India and Pakistan. Without half-a-thought, Prime Minister Modi’s government has relegated them to the waste-paper basket of history. It will take another generation to rearrange their alphabet into another document of peace. 

There are many who remind the leaders of both our countries that their grandstands are built on shoulders of their constituents. Experienced Indians like Raghuram Rajan (former head of the Reserve Bank of India) have voiced concern. He says India’s fiscal deficit 'conceals' a lot and that the Indian economy is descending into a 'worrisome' situation.

Pakistan’s economy has more pressing problems. Its former Governor of the State Bank of Pakistan Dr Shamshad Akhtar refused a post in the prime minister’s government as it was beneath her self-perceived status. The Advisor on Finance and the Chairman Federal Board of Revenue crow that because our imports have gone down, our fiscal deficit has improved. Does anyone in Islamabad remember that the country once had Import and Export policies? Does anyone recall the prime minister’s maiden speech in 2018?  He said that the education crisis would be treated as ‘an emergency’ (the PML-N had used the same words in 2013) and that his government would enrol 22.5 million out-of-school children into improved schools. Or that Prime Minister’s House in Islamabad would become ‘a top-class elite research university’?

It would, if only heads of state would stop making official visits, begging for our mediation.





17 October 2019
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