IDSA COMMENT

The Need for India to Engage in ‘Disaster Diplomacy’ with Pakistan

August 18, 2010

Pakistan is experiencing one of the worst disasters in history. Floods have devastated the country killing more than 1500 people and leaving many people homeless. The number of people suffering from this natural disaster could exceed 13 million, which is, according to UN officials, more than the combined total of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake and the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

International media and international organizations are focusing on the issue and trying to develop a prompt response to handle the situation better. Since last week, it has been the major issue covered in the front pages of major international newspapers. However, if you live in India and do not have the habit of following the international media, you are unlikely to know the grave nature of the disaster. The Indian media have a strong tendency, wittingly or unwittingly, to ignore developments in the near neighbourhood and do not even bother to give the full account of the disaster. Why is that so? What makes India (and Indian media) ignore the unfolding disaster in Pakistan?

It is true that India also has its own flood issue in Leh and trying to remedy the negative effects of it. However, considering the geographical area and the number of people affected in Leh, it does not get much coverage in the international media compared to Pakistan, because it is not a big issue. To indicate this point, even Indian media does not cover the disaster as much in Leh compared to the corruption in the Common Wealth Games.

First of all, this indicates, again, the lack of a strategic framework in India when it comes to Pakistan. Any strategic framework that focuses only on war-time situation is not more than a war strategy in its essence. Strategic framework has the strategies of both war-time and peacetime in terms of how to handle the other side and in what terms. India has indicated a willingness to continue negotiations with Pakistan and is willing to pursue this process. If India is indeed serious about this, nothing may be more useful to underline this than flood disaster in Pakistan. It is a winning situation for India in any case. India should highly publicize its strong intention to send aid to Pakistan directly and indirectly; whether it is rejected or accepted is the issue of Pakistani elite. Pakistan needs millions in aid following the floods to reconstruct and rebuild all the destroyed lives. It will keep Pakistan busy for quite some time. If India is interested in seizing this opportunity, it is time to do so. If Pakistan accepts Indian help, it will be a moral advantage for India; if Pakistan rejects it, given the circumstances on the ground, India will win the hearts of Pakistani public and the only loser will be Pakistani authorities.

There are two basic reasons why India should do so. First, India should understand that historical conflicts between nations can only be solved through society-to-society interaction. Governing elites are interested in solving such conflicts only if it serves another high interest of the state, which rarely happens. India has shown the signs of understanding this approach when it offered to trade with Pakistan directly. During the time of crises and disasters, people do not ask from whom the help is coming. What they care about is the help itself. In international conflict resolution, there is a term called ‘disaster diplomacy’, which explains how a disaster in one country may open new ways of interaction and how it brings a new perspective to the persisting issues. In 1999, when Turkey had the earthquake, one of the first to help was Greece – then the historical and immediate enemy of Turkey both in the eyes of public and governing elite. Greek help to Turkey and later Turkish help to Greece during its own earthquake in 2000 opened up a new way of seeing each other, and brought a new perspective and understanding between societies. After ten years, now Turkey and Greece enjoy the best relations ever in their history and those who write on Turkish-Greek relations do emphasise the role of disaster diplomacy. This is India’s time, if India is serious to push for a dialogue with Pakistan and to have better relations in future. Societies often have short memories. Historical wars and enmity can be forgotten, but a help to those in need is difficult to forget. In retrospect, one should also note here that India pushed for dialogue and negotiations with Pakistan when it was not a right time both for the other party and international community. But these floods may open new prospects.

The second reason is that both the negative and positive results of these floods in Pakistan are likely to affect India much more than any other state. If Pakistan becomes a failed state or a totally militarily controlled state, it will have its repercussions first on India-Pakistan relations. Similarly, if extremists and radical elements emerge stronger in Pakistan in the wake of this disaster, that is also likely to hit India first. Indians should understand that the destiny of India and Pakistan is interlinked. It was the same before partition, and is the same even after partition. Those who write Indian history cannot do so properly without any reference to Pakistan; and those who write Pakistan’s history cannot do so without India.

What is at stake in Pakistan today is also at stake for India. If India is willing to show its humanitarian and global power role, here is the opportunity. And this is a show in which India has nothing to lose. The decision is up to the Indian elite but those who miss historical opportunities usually have to wait several decades more, if not a century, to get a second chance.