President Obama is in India on a state visit. The objective is simple: to bring India into the U.S. orbit. Arms sales (about $10 billion) are contemplated; commercial deals are in the offing … as salivating businessmen from both sides down spicy curries at big city hotels, where the price of a meal is the per capita annual income of the other half in India. India in exchange wants support for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.
But the situation is complicated by U.S. ties to Pakistan, which trouble India; the U.S. caught in Afghanistan needs adjacent Pakistan — at least at the moment. One way out is for the U.S. to act as impartial mediator and assist in developing confidence building measures as a minimal start towards better relations between the two countries. Exercising influence to draw the subcontinent together should make a welcome change in an area where religion exploited as a colonial wedge became a murderous differentiator in 1947. Over sixty years later, the countries are unable to shed this unhappy colonial legacy despite the horrific example of Sri Lanka and the expensive heartbreak of beautiful Kashmir.
Most recently, Pakistan has been devastated by floods, the aid to victims grossly mismanaged; India finished hosting the Commonwealth Games — a peculiar leftover from the glory days of Empire — in a saga of incompetence, bad luck and corruption that makes people with empathy for the country wince. And Pakistan’s top cricketers are involved in an ugly match-fixing scheme. So the two countries have some things in common after all: incompetence and corruption — a baseline promising every prospect for improvement.
There is a certain smugness in the Indian media about India’s economic progress. Yet if one compares per capita income, Pakistan is not that different (per capital GNI of $1070 versus $980) and it certainly does not suffer from an epidemic of farmer suicides. In fact. if one travels to one or the other, it is difficult to see any difference. And culturally, there is hardly any. One does notice a generally better fed populace in Pakistan perhaps reflected in life expectancy (68 versus 62 for men and 66 versus 65 for women).
Indian policy makers and elements of the more jingoistic press need a strong dose of reality. Those wanting to teach Pakistan a lesson seem oblivious to the estimated hundred nuclear weapons it possesses. Moreover, the prevailing winds — from west to east — are not to India’s advantage, for a bomb exploding above ground on Pakistan’s side of the Wagah border is likely to decimate Amritsar. As war between nuclear-armed states is unthinkable, there appears to be no rational alternative but to pursue peace. And the U.S. can help.
The attack on Bombay was horrific and a testament to the ignorance of the attackers, who focused it on the hotel built in response to British discrimination against the local population. But terrorism is a tactic, and asking Pakistan to fight terrorism is like asking a country to fight artillery barrages or infantry charges. The underlying causes and the plight of Kashmiris must never be mentioned — as Arundhati Roy now defending charges of sedition has learned. If this ostrich approach to policy has yielded little in the past, the question to ask is, how can it possibly be successful going forward?
Both countries need a strong dose of self-examination — and soon — because impending issues and foreseeable future existential threats stemming from scarce water resources portend the unthinkable. Those who say Pakistan is a small country might pause to consider the possibility of a nuclear arsenal in the hands of an extremist government — a not unlikely election outcome in times of scarcity. It is a scenario the U.S. too can not tolerate in terms of likely devastation and the effects on the rest of the world.
Given the on-again, off-again nature of relations between the two countries, there is a readily available basket of confidence building measures. That aside, a few suggestions come to mind where the U.S., through its own experience, can certainly help. The festering sore needing treatment first and foremost is the religious intolerance and discrimination in both countries. It exists both outside and within the main religious traditions and is at the core of major friction. As a first step, then, what is needed is a hate crimes law and legislation against religious, racial and caste discrimination along the lines of existing laws in the USA. It would punish with extra severity crimes rooted in bigotry; it would also punish hate speech and the unfettered demagoguery of a certain type of politician capitalizing on fear and hatred. Such a law could be the basis of a first treaty, becoming effective in both countries simultaneously. It would be in their mutual interest for it would clearly go a long way to redress the grievances of Muslims in Kashmir (and the rest of India) as well as the under-represented ethnicities in Pakistan.
Second, the two countries need to address the long term or eventual bilateral status. One idea is to examine the European Community template and aspire towards an economic union. India being the more powerful partner must be sensitive to the fears and needs of a smaller Pakistan — not unlike Germany in the European model. Kashmir might well have to become temporarily an autonomous region within the community until trust and almost borderless travel, as in Europe, make such issues an anachronism of the past.
Both India and Pakistan suffer from extreme rural poverty where 85% live on less than a half dollar a day. The ability of urban middle and upper class eyes to look past this sea of misery might well be a self-defense mechanism but corrective lenses are surely necessary. Why not require two years of national volunteer service from graduating university students? They could be grouped in teams, each to assess, develop and execute projects to improve living conditions in their assigned village. Now here’s the kicker: Each team should consist of participants from both countries in proportion to their respective total pools available.
There are many confidence building measures but few better than for the young to get to know each other and work together towards a worthwhile goal. As numerous examples and studies have shown, micro development rooted at village level is the quickest, surefire way to improve rural quality of life. Add the young volunteers from both countries and there might well be hope for the future.
A final thought for President Obama. Should his hosts fail to shield him, he will have the chance to witness abject poverty of a kind he has never encountered. So here is a fact he might ponder: The Gini Index, a widely used measure of social and economic inequality, is 36.8 for India, 30.6 for Pakistan, and for the U.S. it is … 40.8! Perhaps, the people promised change had expected something would have been done about it.