The choices ahead

Print edition : June 09, 2001

Whatever the motive, and however incoherent Vajpayee's foreign policy, his invitation to Musharraf is welcome; it should lead to nuclear restraint, confidence-building and a working group on Kashmir.

TWO lazy premises are integral to what might be called the pop psychology-based realpolitik analysis that passes for much of strategic and international relations "theorising" in India. (Astonishingly, the two are often forcibly mixed together.) One is the idea that states have no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests. These in turn are so obvious that they can be plucked, like ripe fruit from a tree. Nation-states behave rationally in promoting these interests. The second assumption is that right-wing conservatives are better placed than liberal or leftist leaders of a state to reach reconciliation with its adversaries. Being "realists", rightists have an inherent capacity to make such deals. They need not worry about ultra-nationalist critics who could accuse them of "selling out" to "the enemy". A case in point is Nixon-Kissinger's "ping-pong diplomacy" with China.

Commentators have seized upon the two premises either to oppose or support A.B. Vajpayee's invitation to General Pervez Musharraf to visit India. The opponents argue that Pakistan's long-term interests lie in maintaining virulent hostility towards its "Other" (India) to the point of its disintegration, or at least destabilisation and haemorrhage. Visceral hatred of India is common to all Pakistani governments, especially their quintessentially khaki versions. Kargil and Pakistani support to the Kashmir militancy are mere instances of that hostility. Therefore, nothing should be expected from Musharraf's visit. Indeed, Vajpayee was ill-advised to invite him, especially when the six-months-long Kashmir ceasefire has so visibly failed.

Many who support the invitation to Musharraf claim that Vajpayee is uniquely placed to reach reconciliation with Pakistan, even resolve the thorny Kashmir problem, because he comes from the strongly anti-Pakistan tradition of the Hindu Right. His counterpart, in turn, can reach a "historic compromise" with India because he is a military, not civilian, leader and can carry the Right with him. The present moment is propitious, the argument runs. After all, Vajpayee may not be Prime Minister for long. And India's strategy of isolating Pakistan has failed. What is needed now is hard-nosed bargaining and deal-making based on the national interest, however narrowly defined.

This column argues that these premises and conclusions are profoundly mistaken. The first premise errs on assigning permanence to interests which actually change with ground-level economic, social, political and cultural realities. "Interests" are competing entities perceived divergently by different people, who give them different priorities. Specifically, it may not be in Pakistan's long-term interest to maintain hostility towards India, and vice versa. Admittedly, they have been locked in hostility since birth. Many of their rulers have been tempted to foment enmity as a means of "externalising" internal crises and counter the erosion of their legitimacy caused by the failure of their own policies. Yet, this is not inevitable or immutable. It is possible to radically revise and reshape India-Pakistan relations. The first premise ignores this.

The second premise simply misreads Cold War history. During a specific conjuncture in the late 1960s/early 1970s, a breach opened up for a variety of reasons between the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and China, which the U.S. fully exploited by befriending China to "contain" the Soviet Union. It is this conjuncture, not the personalities of Nixon or Kissinger - even less their "inherent" capacities - that was vital to "ping-pong" diplomacy's success. Un-deniably, within domestic politics Nixon was better placed than Lyndon Johnson or Gerald Ford to drive a China bargain. But that was more a comment on the nature of Cold War era politics than on Nixon's abilities.

The larger context here was one of relative domestic political instability - no U.S. President between Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan served two terms - itself driven by the global situation, in which U.S. power was in retreat, with one revolution every four years between 1945 and 1979. Added to this was Republican "isolationism", which facilitated Nixon's task. The Right's "edge" could, then, be a bit of an illusion.

In the India-Pakistan context, such an edge hardly exists. Vajpayee leads a rag-tag coalition, and is himself vulnerable to hardcore elements in his own Sangh Parivar. And Musharraf will not exactly have a cakewalk so far as "his" religious Right goes. Neither of them can be credited with "inherent" capacity or superiority in deal-making, which derives from conservatism. For instance, a non-conservative I.K. Gujral has done ten times more for reconciliation and peace in India's neighbourhood than Vajpayee.

THE road to peace, then, is not paved with stones of hawkish national interest, as the Right interprets it. However, there is a strong argument for an India-Pakistan dialogue, which overcomes the weaknesses and limitations of the rather poorly stated official case. Some of these weaknesses should be obvious. The invitation to Musharraf cannot be reconciled with New Delhi's refusal to engage, in fact even recognise, him fully, which persisted until the very morning of May 23. Nor is the decision - taken over a Vajpayee-Singh-Advani luncheon meeting - part of a larger game plan rooted in a coherent foreign policy. It is a clever tactic unconnected to a strategy.

In this, it resembles the ceasefire that failed because it was a prelude to nothing. At the same time, it is meant to "compensate" for the calling off of the ceasefire under hardline pressure from Advani. This speaks of an awkward balancing act, not a mature, confident, strategy on Vajpayee's part.

Then, there is the Washington factor too. There has doubtless been some gradual nudging by the U.S. to talk to Pakistan. But more important, New Delhi is itself keen to please the U.S. and ward off future international pressure on Kashmir by appearing "reasonable". This is part of its craving for acceptance as a "responsible" nuclear weapons-state.

Another potential "negative" is the Kashmir issue: What can New Delhi offer Islamabad on this? How can their positions be reconciled in the short run? If nothing is achieved on Kashmir, the opponents say, the talks would fail. And a failure today could be disastrous, especially because the situation in the Kashmir Valley has deteriorated with growing popular frustration and rampant human rights violations by the Army, the Border Security Force (BSF) and the State police's Special Operations Group. It is largely for this mix of political reasons, and with an eye on the coming Assembly elections, especially in Uttar Pradesh, that Vajpayee played the Pakistan gambit. These arguments can serve as qualifications, caveats or warnings. But they do not constitute a persuasive reason for opposing the Vajpayee-Musharraf meeting - despite the questionable calculations of all concerned. It is overwhelmingly important that India and Pakistan resume their dialogue. As this column has repeatedly argued, it was bad policy and unspeakably poor diplomacy on India's part to seek to isolate Musharraf's government in the first place. The intrinsic merit of reconciliation and peace with this neighbour far outweighs any short-term, temporary, tactical advantages available from point-scoring. "Cross-border" terrorism has increasingly become a self-inflicted delusion, namely, that popular alienation and militant violence in Kashmir would go away only if Pakistan changed its policy. Pakistan has indeed compounded the problem by fomenting and legitimising jehadi violence, but the problem is essentially internal.

The case for an India-Pakistan dialogue becomes stronger, not weaker, because both countries possess weapons that can cause mass destruction. They repeatedly threatened directly, or indirectly, to use them in the Kargil war - history's most serious conventional conflict between two nuclear weapons states. India-Pakistan rivalry is one of the greatest obstacles to combating poverty ("our greatest common enemy", Vajpayee says) and promoting the "welfare of our people" in all of South Asia.

Anything that defuses or de-escalates that rivalry deserves unconditional support. The parochialism that afflicts Indian and Pakistani thinking on a range of issues cannot be fought unless there is a new detente. The growing momentum of a detente from below, involving citizens' initiatives, only underscores the need for reconciliation at the apex level, which has lagged behind civil society initiatives. There are some 20 of these encompassing artistes, scholars, trade unionists, journalists, politicians, even former soldiers. And they have grown rapidly over the past three years. The latest in this series are religious-level Track-II efforts and a FICCI (Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry) high-level delegation visit to Pakistan.

Put simply, large numbers of Indians and Pakistanis are simply fed up with mutual hostility and the rhetoric that goes with it. They include enlightened liberal elements in both societies. They seriously want to give peace a chance. That is where the "high road" that Vajpayee proposes comes in. This involves pursuing "the path of reconciliation... engaging in productive dialogue," "building trust and confidence."

Vital here is the spirit of trust, of generosity, of wanting to do something unsordid, unlike what India and Pakistan have done to each other for a long time. It is easy to recount their bitter history, replete with betrayed promises, mutual stalking, puerile, unrestrained abuse, and worse. That is the laziest option. What is less lazy but more rewarding is to realise the potential for a new endeavour, for a South Asian New Deal.

We must attempt this sincerely and without pettiness. That is why we must resist the temptation to pick holes in the Vajpayee-Musharraf letters and read "preconditions" into what each is saying about the "core issue" or "composite dialogue." Indian and Pakistani leaders are both at fault for overstating their case and specifying "the destination" before "the journey" (the dialogue) begins. If Musharraf has explicitly talked of Kashmir, so has Jaswant Singh: "an integral part of India" which "is at the core of [India's] nationhood" - just as it is of Pakistan's. But such exchanges should not detract from the spirit of reconciliation.

This emphasis on good faith is not meant to suggest that the Vajpayee-Musharraf dialogue is doomed to remain at the level of lofty rhetoric and declarations of intent. Unlike Lahore, where there was very little preparation, the two sides now have a reasonable interval in which to prepare the ground for some procedural and some substantive agreements.

At Lahore they missed a historic opportunity to reach an agreement on nuclear or missile restraint. Today, they have a renewed chance to pledge a freeze on nuclear weapons development and missile test-flights. This can take many forms: reiterated commitments to global elimination of nuclear weapons and preventing a nuclear arms race in South Asia; an agreement not to deploy nuclear weapons for three years, coupled with a bilateral agreement on no further nuclear tests and on a freeze on weaponisation; a commitment to exploring a nuclear weapons-free zone in South Asia. Such a zone would radicalise the original concept, from non-proliferation to active disarmament. Equally in order is a formal agreement not to deploy short-range missiles or test-fly any missiles.

Some of these commitments can be verified through cooperative monitoring technologies. They will help defuse tension, without legitimising accelerated nuclear and missile development. In their content and spirit, they are wholly different from Nuclear Risk Reduction Measures, which presuppose deployment and merely make nuclear weapons "safe" and hence more usable. A nuclear and missile freeze will have a dramatic impact upon the regional, indeed global, environment. If such a confidence-boosting accord is initialled, India and Pakistan could put aside some long-standing irrational irritants like Siachen, Sir Creek, and Wular Barrage, on which an agreement was all but reached in the past. Another substantive area of agreement is relaxation of visa restrictions, freer movement of tourists and scholars, exchange of periodicals and literature, visits by Track-II and Track-III delegates, and by professional groups such as trade unionists, journalists, feminist activists and academics.

On Kashmir, New Delhi and Islamabad will be hard put to reach a comprehensive agreement. But a beginning can be made in three ways. First, a long-term negotiating group which meets frequently (once a week or fortnight) should be set up. This could institutionalise the process of dialogue open to the people of Jammu and Kashmir. Second, a bus service could be started between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad, like the one between Delhi and Lahore. And third, a "soft corridor" could be created along the Line of Control (LoC), where people from both sides of the border freely move and trade without visas.

It bears stating that much more radical proposals were exchanged two years ago during the repeated visits of PMO emissary R.K. Mishra to Pakistan. These must be revived in a spirit of accommodation and generosity. India and Pakistan must try to take the high road. And try hard. They might not succeed. But the only alternative to that would be a return to the sickening routine of mutual hate-mongering, more hostility, more self-inflicted injury... Their peoples deserve better.

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor
×