Three things have changed since talks between India and Pakistan broke down last July. One, Pakistan, then ankle-deep in political and religious violence, is now submerged by it. Two, Islamabad's ties with the United States, following the Raymond Davis incident, have frayed. Three, top leaders of the ISI face prosecution in a New York court on charges of abetment to murder of US citizens in the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT)-led 26/11 Mumbai terror attack. Michael Leiter, director of the National Counter-Terrorism Centre, who deposed recently before the US Congress, asserts that the LeT is an "increasing threat" to the US itself.
Taken together, the three developments have transformed strategic calculations in the subcontinent. When home secretary-level talks between India and Pakistan resume on March 28, India must set the agenda. If the India-Pakistan foreign ministers' summit, scheduled for Delhi in July, ends without a constructive outcome, the suspended composite dialogue could go into deep freeze. The rising tide of sectarian violence and political assassinations demands focussed engagement with Pakistan - on rigorously laid-out terms.
National security advisor Shivshankar Menon in a recent speech at the Asian Security Conference implied that Pakistan is not part of what he termed the "Asian economic movement". It has an expanding nuclear weapons programme and hence creates instability in Asia. "There is increasing danger," he warned, "of terrorism spreading from it." An economically interdependent Pakistan is therefore in the interest of every strategic stakeholder in the subcontinent.
India's economy is expanding at over 9% a year. Pakistan's battered economy is floundering with annual growth stuck at under 1%. India's GDP by purchasing power parity will cross $4 trillion in 2011, nine times Pakistan's estimated GDP of $0.45 trillion. At their respective current growth rates, India's GDP in 2020 will exceed $10 trillion while Pakistan's will crawl to $0.50 trillion. According to Citi's latest report, Global Growth Generators, India's economy will be the world's largest by 2050 with a GDP of $85.97 trillion. The little-publicised oil-gas pipeline agreement signed between India, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan signals a new south-central Asia guided by the growing power of geoeconomics. This underlines the economic "inclusiveness" Menon called for at the Asian Security Conference.
Pakistan's governing elite is made up largely of Punjabis though Pashtuns are well-represented in the bureaucracy and the army (70% of which is Punjabi). The unspoken fear that haunts Islamabad is the latent demand for a Greater Pashtunistan, fusing Pakistan's 28 million Pashtuns with 12 million Pashtuns across the Durand Line in Afghanistan. If that demand gathers momentum, and the Balochi and Sindhi nationalist movements grow, it could trisect Pakistan.
This is not in India's long-term strategic interest. A stable, peaceful, undivided Pakistan acts as a buffer zone against the murderous Taliban and its radicalised Pashtun-Balochi fellow-tribesmen. While the Taliban is made up largely of Pashtuns, with a smattering of Chechens and Arabs, its violent philosophy finds no resonance with the secular Pashtun nationalist movement represented politically by the moderate Awami National Party in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and historically by Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the Frontier Gandhi.
Political assassinations and the fear of religious violence have, however, silenced liberal Pakistani society. From that silence is now emerging a recognition - even among Pakistan's army - that terrorism does not pay. The radicalisation of Pakistan's professional middle class - lawyers, doctors, entrepreneurs - presents a challenge and an opportunity for India. The Pakistani army and government are no longer in full control of events. Pakistan is probably more willing today than at any time since the post-Bangladesh 1970s to accept that its future lies in peace, not conflict, with India.
Of the five principal issues on the table at next Monday's home secretary-level talks, dealing with the first two - Sir Creek and Siachen - will pose the fewest problems. Confidence-building measures across travel, trade and people-to-people contacts are also likely to move forward rapidly. The last two, Kashmir and terrorism, however, could remain intractable. The India-Pakistan foreign ministers' summit talks in July will coincide with the peak of Kashmir's torrid summer as well as the first drawdown of US and NATO troops in Afghanistan. If the Valley erupts into violence as it did last year, the reverberations will be felt all the way in Delhi.
What then is the most coherent strategy India should pursue for a durable peace with a Pakistan increasingly torn apart by centrifugal forces? As this decade unfolds, the generation of army commanders scarred as young officers by Bangladesh in 1971 will pass. The Pakistani army - including General Zia-ul Haq's radicalised core - knows it has at most a 10-year window to employ terrorism as an instrument of state policy with Kashmir as the pretext before economic disparities between the two countries shuts that window for good.
A strong economy, good political governance and a robust foreign policy are India's best assets as Pakistan finds itself in the eye of a perfect storm: an alienated US squeezing its financial pipeline and home-grown terrorists eroding its fragile democracy. These unintended consequences could finally compel Islamabad to abandon its self-destructive hostility towards India and give peace in the subcontinent a real chance.
The writer is an author and chairman of a media group.