Post-Agra, time to converge

Published : Aug 04, 2001 00:00 IST

The Vajpayee government is under pressure to negate and reverse the gains of Agra. Progressives and peaceniks must hold it down to reconciliation with Pakistan by converging and focussing their energies together.

BARELY a fortnight after the Agra Summit, we are witnessing what might be called a Scissors Phenomenon: increasing divergence between the Indian and Pakistani governments' approaches to the peace and reconciliation agenda. With each passing day, their mid-July success in narrowing differences over the process of dialogue - towards the scissors' midpoint, so to speak - seems like a thing of the past. The distance between the two blades of the scissors is growing as India increasingly hardens its stand and Pakistan makes conciliatory gestures.

The retrograde Scissors Phenomenon could soon throw India and Pakistan back to a situation of dangerous mutual hostility and confrontation. This would be akin to snatching defeat from the jaws of victory - a prospect that seemed tantalisingly close in Agra. That would also substantially damage the gains registered by the social constituency for peace as well as the advance of secularism in both countries. It would spread apathy and cynicism where hope once existed. This column argues that it is incumbent upon progressive political leaders, secular citizens and peace activists to join hands to advance the Agra dialogue process. The present moment offers a unique opportunity for doing so. But first consider this:

After their initial peevish response to General Pervez Musharraf's much-exaggerated media "coup" in Agra, Indian government functionaries are settling into a conservative mould. Despite his reiteration of the relevance of Agra, Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh in his July 17 statement essentially blamed Pakistan's "unifocal" emphasis on Kashmir for the failure of the Summit to produce agreement. Vajpayee's own pronouncements since then point towards disengagement from Pakistan, not re-engagement.

Take his July 24 Parliament statement with its self-justificatory tone. There, he described well-known India-Pakistan differences on Kashmir as the main reason why "we had to abandon the quest for a joint document... My Cabinet colleagues and I were unanimously of the view that our basic principles cannot be sacrificed for the sake of a joint document." Vajpayee characterised "the insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir today, with its foreign mercenaries and generous assistance from abroad", as nothing but "terrorism". He then said: "India has the resolve, strength and stamina to counter terrorism and violence until it is decisively crushed. I want to reiterate this determination today..." By contrast, his assurance that "we will continue to seek dialogue and reconciliation" was feeble.

In his speech to the Parliamentary Party meeting of the Bharatiya Janata Party that day, Vajpayee was even more aggressive. He said Musharraf had returned empty-handed to Pakistan because "I didn't concede anything to him". (This echoed the BJP hawks' congratulations to him for "standing firm"). He also threatened: if Pakistan keeps insisting Kashmir is the "core issue", then we will tell them POK (Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir) is the "core of the core issue". He has since clarified that no dates have been fixed for his return visit to Pakistan. (Officials of the Prime Minister's Office and the Ministry of External Affairs, the MEA, officials say the visit is unlikely this year.)

These statements clearly indicate a slideback from Vajpayee's stance in Agra. The hardening is duly paralleled by the drafting of three key Ministers to represent the government's views to the media: Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley and Promod Mahajan (in that order of stridency?).

The voices that Vajpayee hears from the rest of his Sangh Parivar all oppose reconciliation with Pakistan. There are many: the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's M.G. Vaidya, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's assorted mahants, the BJP's K.R. Malkani, V.K. Malhotra and Chaman Lal Gupta. They all regard Agra as a mistake, one that should not be repeated through an early return visit. RSS organs like Panchajanya (which had launched an essay competition on India-Pakistan friendship jointly with the Pakistani publication Jang) are back spewing anti-Muslim venom. They salute Air Chief Marshal A.Y. Tipnis for not having saluted Musharraf. The "real issue", declares Organiser, is not Kashmir, but "Islamic terror". Vajpayee is doing little to counter or moderate the shrill tone of such counsel for belligerence based on the view that there is a historic inevitability about India-Pakistan enmity; it is irredeemable.

Most disturbingly, Vajpayee is under pressure to accept an MEA "internal assessment" which will make New Delhi set its face against a dialogue with Pakistan and go for a military option in Kashmir. The 15-page report, summarised in The Economic Times (July 25), recommends first that Vajpayee and Jaswant Singh should delay their visits to Islamabad. "Second, India should raise the costs of the proxy war to Pakistan. Third, Pakistan's propaganda offensive should be countered aggressively. And fourth, India should take decisive steps to improve its domestic situation in Kashmir so as to strengthen its bargaining position with Pakistan in future." Here, bilateral diplomacy with Pakistan takes the back seat.

The report is based on the assessment that the gains of Agra, limited or flimsy, have been further eroded because "Musharraf's hardline attitude... did not undergo an iota of change". Besides, there is deterioration in the Kashmir situation "and a substantive increase in cross-border terrorism sponsored by Pakistan, as well as an increase in ISI activity". How this conclusion was reached barely three days after Musharraf's departure remains a mystery. But clearly, one of the main premises here is that the invitation to Musharraf, which effectively "forecloses our earlier option of not engaging Pakistan until it stops cross-border terrorism", was misguided. It gave Musharraf domestic legitimacy. In future engagement, "cessation of terrorism should play a pivotal part."

It is hard to believe that the MEA's seemingly suave mandarins could have produced such an unbalanced document - against diplomatic re-engagement with Pakistan - without gentle goading from the top (for example, from Jaswant Singh) or a degree of resentment at being outmanoeuvred by Musharraf in the "media-public relations game". There are any number of security "experts", of course, who blithely pronounce that Musharraf's "compulsions" vis-a-vis his corps commanders (about which they know a lot!) permitted no flexibility in drafting a joint statement; the Summit was doomed; it is pointless to re-engage Pakistan. It is unfortunate that the MEA should replicate such tripe and give credence to people who have done much to vitiate the India-Pakistan climate.

Vajpayee seized the initiative by inviting Musharraf and thereby kindled a pro-peace popular sentiment, if not groundswell. But he did not do enough by way of political and bureaucratic preparation for the Summit. And he lacked the stomach to prevent sabotage of all attempts at an agreement. The resistance came more from his own Cabinet Committee on Security than from Pakistan. In Agra, he allowed Sangh Parivar hawks to exercise a virtual veto. Now he is allowing the reconciliation agenda to slip out of his hands.

IN contrast to this stands Pakistan's posture. After returning to Islamabad, Musharraf further consolidated his "media advantage". In his July 20 press conference, for which visas were liberally issued to Indian journalists, he skilfully underscored the importance of dialogue, distanced himself further from the "hawks", and appealed to "moderates" and "peace-loving" people in both countries to take the lead in promoting reconciliation. (There was of course the broken-record obsession with Kashmir). He stressed that progress on issues like nuclear restraint, Siachen, and so on would be "in tandem" with an acknowledgement of Kashmir as the core issue in a step-by-step process.

Foreign Minister Sattar has been even more concerned about salvaging the Summit's gains. He told Seema Guha (The Times of India, July 25) that "great restraint on both sides [is] required to zealously preserve the progress made at Agra." He also said: "Real progress in Agra was establishing a structure and framework for future talks and ending the hiatus which brought all negotiations to a halt... Though the agreement was not formalised, many of the points from the document are non-controversial and can be implemented."

Sattar pointedly refused to be drawn into negative or pessimistic interpretations of the Agra talks, says Guha. Most important, he claimed that Musharraf never said it was "Kashmir or nothing." "What he said was progress in Kashmir would pave the way for progress in all spheres of bilateral ties. He said they were twin tracks. The dispute over Kashmir was one while all other issues were part of the second track. The two tracks could move simultaneously."

Privately, Pakistani diplomats say they are embarrassed by the "invisible hand" statement (on the failure of the Agra talks) made by the armed forces spokesperson. They hint that Islamabad might even take some unilateral confidence-building steps. It will certainly not up the ante. The "moderation" might be dictated by economic or political compulsions. But it is real.

Regrettably, much of the Parliamentary debate does not show real recognition of the complexity of the Scissors Phenomenon. The Opposition has rightly grilled the government for its political ineptitude, poor media handling, lack of preparation, and so on. However, some leaders have done so in a manner that leaves it open to a chauvinistic interpretation. This should not be the spirit of any thoughtful criticism of the Summit. The Agra process must be spiritedly defended and taken forward.

This is unlikely to happen if matters rest solely in the hands of Vajpayee and Jaswant Singh or with the MEA mandarins. All those who stand for India-Pakistan reconciliation and a non-military, negotiated, secular solution to the Kashmir crisis must seize the initiative that Vajpayee is losing. They can best do so by joining forces. There are three contingents here: progressive politicians, especially Left-wing party leaders; the Peace Movement; and the secular intelligentsia.

India's progressive political leaders - and there are some in centrist parties - are distinguished by their ability to link social agendas to political realities. Unlike conservatives, they do not defend national sovereignty in its abstract, disembodied form, but link it to the popular interest. They advocate friendly relations with neighbours as the key to security. They also have serious concerns about the human rights situation in Kashmir. They have a stake in India-Pakistan reconciliation through dialogue of the Agra type, based on "the high road", not low-grade realpolitik.

THEY will find a strong ally in the country's growing Peace Movement. This rainbow coalition combines Gandhians and feminists, pacifists and nuclear disarmament campaigners, environmentalists and social justice activists, trade unionists and organisers of urban slum-dwellers and rural labour. It knit together more than 200 groups and non-governmental organisations at the Pakistan-India People's Solidarity Conference in New Delhi (July 12-13). The Declaration adopted there evoked a spectacular response. This comes on top of the constitution last November of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace, which was a major co-sponsor of the Conference. This Movement is uniquely placed to tap the upsurge in the peace sentiment catalysed by Agra. It must run a campaign around the Declaration.

The secular intelligentsia sees a link between the cause of India-Pakistan reconciliation and defence of secularism. Communalism in both countries feeds on hawkish attitudes, and vice versa. There is an urgent need to break the vicious circle of India-Pakistan hostility, which feeds on intolerance and militaristic notions of security, in turn leading to greater hostility. The intelligentsia can form a living link between the political Left, the Peace Movement and the larger public.

Today we badly need that link, or convergence, in two ways. We need to converge, that is, target, focus on and zero in on hawkish adversaries, and isolate them. Narrow, sectarian or parochial nationalists of the Hindutva variety have for far too long tried to claim guardianship of the "national interest". They must be exposed as shysters who represent nothing. In the second sense, convergence speaks to the need to coalesce and bring into mutual alignment a range of tendencies, concerns, sensibilities and movements: from the Narmada Valley to the Kashmir Valley, from Gandhian pacifism to radical art, from social justice to gender equality, from sustainable development to food security for the poor. This means convergence of people's rights and entitlements into a broad political platform. That is the need of the hour.

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