The South Asia Channel
Calling for Peace
Despite renewed tensions between India and Pakistan, public opinion in both countries strongly favors peace.
The war of words between India and Pakistan escalated again recently, making headlines around the world and ultimately prompting an intervention by Secretary of State John Kerry last week. In May, Pakistan’s military top brass and defense minister accused Indian intelligence agency RAW of instigating terrorism within Pakistan. Matters heated up further when India’s defense minister publicly endorsed a policy of using militant proxies to counter Pakistan sponsoring anti-Indian jihadi groups, and climaxed when Prime Minister Modi lashed out against Pakistan during a historic visit to Bangladesh, blaming it of promoting terrorism and creating “nuisances” for India. With this backdrop, India’s hot pursuit of rebels into Myanmar was widely seen as an aggressive message to Pakistan to rethink harboring militants and elicited a tough response from Islamabad.
This bout is the latest in a string of events that have characterized deteriorating relations between India and Pakistan since last year when foreign secretary-level talks were cancelled. But the hardline positions taken by decision makers in both countries are in sharp contrast to the desires of their people, who for years have widely supported establishing better relations and engagement across a variety of mechanisms to foster peace.
Acrimony at the official level has undoubtedly colored perceptions of the general public in both countries, and created a contentious climate. According to Pew’s 2014 Global Attitudes poll, over seven in ten Indians and Pakistanis hold unfavorable views of the other country. Moreover, multiple wars, years of the proxy conflicts, and the looming threat of nuclear annihilation has also instituted a deep sense of insecurity and mistrust among them. As a result, 51 percent of Pakistanis say India is the greatest threat facing their country, and three-fifths rate the risk as very serious. Attitudes are similar across the border, where 47 percent see Pakistan as their chief security risk, with four-fifths classifying the threat from Pakistan as very serious.
But the most remarkable finding is that despite these negative perceptions, the desire for peace runs deep among Indians and Pakistanis, who want better relations and increased dialogue. Just under two in three (64 percent) Indians and seven in ten (69 percent) Pakistanis said it was important to improve bilateral ties in national surveys conducted in 2014 and 2013, respectively. Moreover, a majority of Indians (53 percent) and Pakistanis (76 percent) also favored more talks to reduce tensions. In fact Indians were willing to go even further, with most (77 percent) agreeing in a separate 2013 poll that as the larger power India should take the first step in peace initiatives.
Furthermore, Indians and Pakistanis would also like to see enhanced trade cooperation, endorsing the idea of greater economic integration as a key driver of peace in the region. A majority (54 percent) in India favored increasing business ties with Pakistan in last year’s Pew poll, while more than three in five (63 percent) in Pakistan backed trade with India in Gallup Pakistan’s 2013 national survey. As a matter of fact, despite Pakistani business lobbies pressuring successive governments to maintain protectionist policies, Pakistani consumers have become more supportive of trade with India since at least 2010.
Moreover, in the past, Pakistanis have also widely favored greater economic and cultural exchanges with India, including in areas of agriculture, tourism, education, science and technology, sports, as well as cross-border exchanges between the youth.
Unfortunately, this optimism is not reflected in the official policies of Islamabad and New Delhi, which for at least three major reasons remain divorced from public opinion.
The most crucial problem is that policymakers in both countries are generally insulated from popular pressures. New Delhi’s foreign service bureaucrats operate under limited political oversight because of the low electoral salience of foreign policy issues and also exercise vast autonomy in policymaking. Therefore, Indian policy planning is largely shielded from public sentiments. In Pakistan the military, which has always shaped national thinking on India, exercises disproportionate influence on policy. As a result, the entire process is institutionally set to remain opaque and devoid of public accountability.
The second reason is that hawks now control decision-making on both sides of the border. Two of the leading Indian officials, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, are well known for advocating a tough stance on Pakistan. The impact of such thinking was reflected in last October’s revelation that Modi’s office wanted Pakistan to suffer “deep and heavy losses” in the event of border clashes. In Pakistan, with the generals in control, an aggressive and security-centric approach again dominates decisions on India as well, with any talk of geo-economic cooperation now completely absent.
The third challenge has been the inability of peace lobbies in both countries to strategically mobilize public opinion in favor of programs and policies that help foster better relations and improve perceptions. There are several important bilateral initiatives currently in place to promote peace, including a joint media campaign and Track-II dialogues on water sharing, developing closer business ties as well as diplomatic engagement more generally. While programs such as these pushing for top-down change are important, the failure to create bottom-up pressure for reform and giving ownership of the process to Indians and Pakistanis risks undermining the entire project.
Any significant policy change will face the court of public opinion at which point spoilers—including religious extremists, militant groups, and secular economic lobbies—will undoubtedly seek to mobilize opinions against peace. Therefore, it is imperative to begin organizing popular support and civil society consensus for such policies now.
Despite antipathies at the official level, the desire for friendly relations is widespread among Indians and Pakistanis who, if relations improve, not only stand to gain security, but as a combined market of nearly 1.5 billion consumers also stand to benefit from access to more efficient trade in goods and services, including much needed access to energy sources.
Prime Minister Modi’s call to Prime Minister Sharif as Ramadan began was a welcome step in calming tensions, but both countries must go further. Indian and Pakistani policymakers should take advantage of this broad support for peace and abandon hardline positions in favor policies that promote regional stability and economic progress. Furthermore, the India-Pakistan peace lobbies must mobilize bottom-up pressure for policy reform. They must utilize real-time intelligence to build greater public awareness in both countries on key issues, including the cross-border consensus for better relations, closer trade ties, and cultural exchanges, and also strategically communicate the socio-economic costs of conflict and the benefits of peace.
Stakeholders with an interest in peace in South Asia must start listening to and acting on the demands of everyday Indians and Pakistanis.
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