Between Pakistan and India, soft diplomacy matters
It has been a most unusual spring for Pakistan and India this year. Both sides went within inches of an all-out war, with bilateral relations plunging to their worst depths in two decades. India conducted airstrikes in Pakistan for the first time since their last war in 1971. Pakistan captured — and then within days dramatically freed — an Indian fighter pilot. Close to the border, the airspace was closed for a month and overland third-party flights are still prohibited in a bitter grudge match.
All this against the backdrop of national elections in India which Narendra Modi won in a stunning landslide last week. A persistent Imran Khan was among the first world leaders to greet Modi in a tweet, which was promptly reciprocated in goodwill. Within two days, the two had spoken on the telephone and expressed a willingness to cool bilateral tensions in these hot summer months.
Casual political observers would be hard pressed to decipher the surreal détente-entente. One minute an enemy, the next a friend. But beneath the see-saw of politics, a softer machinery has been at work.
For example, at the beginning of Ramadan, when tensions escalated, a Pakistani company offered to assist an Indian firm to bridge an acute shortage of an iconic indigenous beverage called Rooh Afza, equally popular on both sides of the shared border.
It appears many of those fasting in India were doomed to Rooh Afza-less Iftar meals. The sugar-based beverage of herbs and flowers is made in both countries under the exact same formula because the company was founded by the same family with two scions heading two separate operations after the partition of India (and creation of Pakistan) in 1947.
For many pre- and immediate post-partition families in both countries, Rooh Afza is simply the taste of childhood and the nostalgia of lazy summers at home. What better way of brokering peace than evoking that nostalgia, sharing a beverage that has refused to change (even after geography did) since before 1947. This is the essence of what soft diplomacy means, and what it can achieve between people with a shared heritage and a certain untapped sentimentalism for one another.
With ground realities better now than before the election on both sides, a renewed bilateral effort at soft diplomacy is a better bet for the nearly 1.5 billion people of South Asia – nearly a fourth of all humanity.
In the same way, popular sports stars Sania Mirza of India and Shoaib Malik of Pakistan in many ways did more to uplift the soft image of both countries than most diplomats. With diplomatic relations between the two countries frozen following the 2008 Mumbai attacks, Mirza and Malik fell in love and are happily married with huge a fan base, all the while retaining their respective nationalities.
Pakistan has a government that was elected less than a year ago. India will have a brand new one in a few days. Both leaders have tried the hard route of addressing their mutual concerns — and failed. With ground realities better now than before the election on both sides, a renewed bilateral effort at soft diplomacy is a better bet for the nearly 1.5 billion people of South Asia – nearly a fourth of all humanity.
Both nations share more in common than not – and nuclear arsenals are not the half of it. They share the same spoken language and many facets of culture and celebration. Their cricket, film, music and food come from the shared past of an eternally shared region.
Strategic soft diplomacy has worked in the past to help both countries step back from the brink of war. Amid tensions, President Ziaul Haq went to meet Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by attending a cricket match in Jaipur. Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a surprise stopover in Lahore to attend a wedding in Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s family.
While complex reasons always drove a wedge in peace attempts, the most important way to solve the hard problems of political mistrust and hurt is soft diplomacy that is led by elected representatives and sustained by civil society.
Khan and Modi should use their mandate to carve out a new tryst with destiny that focuses on a shared future. Maybe the next time they meet (at Modi’s inauguration perhaps?), they could toast to this over a chilled glass of Rooh Afza.