The Punch And Judy Show

Posted on July 16, 2010 in Politics

By Shikhar Singh:

The joint press conference in Islamabad last night baffled hawks and doves alike. What began as a cordial and forward-looking exchange ended in an acrimonious Punch-and-Judy show. While TV anchors grappled with the fast degenerating atmosphere in Islamabad, the army reported a major ceasefire violation by Pakistan in the Krishna Ghati sector of Poonch, the timing and location of which was evidently suggestive.

The showdown, improbable after the day’s events, seemed imminent with both India and Pakistan heavily armed for the occasion– India with Headley’s confession and Pakistan with the unrest in Kashmir. In the end, the two men were true to their opening remarks, for the talks were as “frank, candid and honest” as they could get.

S.M. Krishna with Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi

The press conference deviated from course during the question and answer session, with members of the media contingent provoking the leaders on thorny issues. While an Indian mediaperson sought Qureshi’s response on the recent hate speeches by Hafiz Saeed, his Pakistani counterparts grilled Krishna on the “illegal occupation of Kashmir” and the “human rights violations” there. Both evoked strong sentiments: Qureshi implicitly equated Saeed with India’s Home Secretary (arguing that the latter too vitiated the atmosphere before talks) and then suggested both he and Krishna felt Pillai’s remarks were “uncalled for” (causing ripples amongst commentators back home); Krishna on the other hand linked the “destabilization of Kashmir” to a spurt in “cross-border infiltration”, something Qureshi strongly rebutted when he stated “infiltration [was] not a policy of the Government of Pakistan or any [of its] intelligence agencies”.

So contrarian was the posturing that on Baluchistan Qureshi devolved into specifics while Krishna maintained a generic position (stating that “not a shred of evidence [had] been provided to India”), while on 26/11 and terrorism, Krishna talked specifics while Qureshi remained noncommittal on a time-frame for the prosecution of the Mumbai accused (arguing that an “independent judiciary” in Pakistan would follow a “legal process”). Either ways, the strategy employed by both leaders was the same– to remain entrenched on stated positions and maintain a sum-zero exchange– with the tactic changing from time to time.

The reason for the current position is that both India and Pakistan have begun treating diplomatic engagements as opportunities to reach out domestic audiences. The need to send the “right message” has pushed both countries into an intractable stand-off, making a compromise all the more difficult. The emergence of a vocal civil society in Pakistan and a freer media there has contributed to a change in the political dynamic. Similarly, the proliferation of electronic media in India has taken public discourse to an entirely new level. All this has meant that management of expectations is central to diplomatic success or failure.

After 26/11, the absence of a composite dialogue has made the peace process more dependent on media driven discourse. The lack of a structured dialogue has given media the prerogative to determine agendas, priorities and attitudes. In that sense, governments in both capitals are not leading a bilateral relationship but are being led into one. The fact that bilateral relations are on auto-pilot is a cause of worry because the all-powerful media that charts the course of these relations lives on headlines and breaking news and not any particular long-term vision.

The spectacle that unfolded yesterday was captured by the media, analyzed by it and arguably even prompted by it. Such is the democratization of relations that public opinion has come to dominate foreign policy in our neighbourhood. However, there is an urgent need to give a framework to such diplomatic engagement before it turns incoherent and counterproductive. That is the lesson from yesterday’s gaffe.

The writer is an undergraduate student at St. Stephen’s College, University of Delhi and an old-boy of The Doon School (ex 46 H ‘08).  An avid follower of politics and international affairs, a keen debater and a regular contributor to student journals, currently, he is also the student editor of the Wall Street Journal India Debate. He blogs regularly at Everything Politics.