Hesitant first steps

Published : Jul 04, 2003 00:00 IST

As India and Pakistan appear to be hitting the road to peace, preparations are on to resume the Delhi-Lahore bus service. Here, the 'Lahore bus' at the Delhi Transport Corporation workshop on May 28. - PRAKASH SINGH/AFP

As India and Pakistan appear to be hitting the road to peace, preparations are on to resume the Delhi-Lahore bus service. Here, the 'Lahore bus' at the Delhi Transport Corporation workshop on May 28. - PRAKASH SINGH/AFP

The dialogue process between India and Pakistan stumbles forward, with the United States urging them on and with support for talks growing on both sides of the border.

INDIA and Pakistan appear, at the moment, to be behaving like two bull elephants being driven towards the unknown. They can sense opportunities before them, are concerned that they might be heading into a trap, and know that they not only are being forced to cooperate but would probably face the future better if they indeed do work with each other. But, like entities that have forgotten how to act on their own volition, the two are yet to overcome the bitter memories of battles old and new and strive for a mutual understanding that will help them cope better with developments that will assail them both equally.

It is a season in which India and Pakistan are being wooed by the major powers in a manner they have seldom, if ever, been before. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has shared the high table with the Presidents of the United States and Russia (a luncheon table no doubt, but who is complaining?), Deputy Prime Minister L. K. Advani has been to the U.S. on what he describes as a "strategic relationship building exercise", and Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf will go to Camp David for a break from the heat of the subcontinental summer. While the leaders on both sides appear willing enough to reach out for the opportunities being dangled before them, they seem uncertain whether they can carry their peoples along.

The attention that is being paid to them by those in control of the superpower have, at least partially, induced leaders in India and Pakistan to believe that their maximalist agenda is still feasible. This seems to be the only conclusion that can be drawn from Advani's repeated attempts during his U.S. tour to convince officials and the public there that Pakistan is currently the breeding ground of Al Qaeda and other forms of fundamentalist terrorism. Musharraf, too, as indicated in his interview to NDTV, appears to believe that he can convince all concerned that the Kashmiris do not want to remain with India and therefore should be assisted to go their own way and become part of Pakistan. Yet, even as they cling on to their maximalist positions, the leaders of India and Pakistan have realised that the only way to win the U.S. over to their positions is by demonstrating that they are responsible parties who are intent on solving their problem through dialogue and other peaceful means.

The irony is that the people today appear to be strongly in favour of a dialogue process than they have been for a long time. If the leaders of India and Pakistan had gauged and acted according to the wishes of their own peoples, and actively moulded public opinion where necessary, they could probably have moved towards a mutual engagement with greater confidence and certainty. Instead, they have set up the external world - and today that essentially means the U.S. administration - as the judge of their performance. Accordingly, both India and Pakistan appear to be calibrating their moves in order to please the U.S. rather than proceed on the basis of the public response in both countries to the few overtures that have been made thus far.

Indian and Pakistani officials are scheduled to meet to discuss the modalities of reviving the road links between the two countries in the second half of June. The prospect of reviving air links is still handicapped by the uncertainty whether only direct flights would be resumed or whether flights will be allowed over Pakistani territory. But given the approach both sides have adopted at the moment, this appears to be a minor hitch that might not be very difficult to resolve since it only involves the revival of an arrangement that existed until end 2001.

Pakistan cleared the confusion within its apex decision-making bodies and clarified that Aziz Ahmed Khan would be its next High Commissioner in New Delhi. With India's High Commissioner-designate Shiva Shankar Menon likely to move to Islamabad only after Vajpayee's visit to China (where Menon is currently the Ambassador), full diplomatic relations would be effectively restored by the end of the month or soon thereafter. Exchanges at a higher level would, in the natural course, begin only after the two High Commissioners are in place, but contrary to some more optimistic projections, indications are that it would be a while before the dialogue process moves to the Foreign Secretary or higher levels.

With few major moves having been made towards the initiation of dialogue over the first fortnight of June, the most significant development from the Indian side has been the manner in which the leadership has steadily diluted its earlier stance that infiltration must stop. Once Vajpayee made his offer of a dialogue, even before there was a significant scaling down of terrorist infiltration from across the Line of Control (LoC) and the international border, it was apparent that this precondition had been set aside. Any remaining doubts were removed when Vajpayee said that he had told President George W. Bush, during their brief conversation in Petrograd, that it would be difficult to continue with the dialogue if cross-border terrorism was not brought to an end. In other words, the dialogue will begin, but its pace and quality will be conditioned by the efforts that Pakistan makes to stop infiltration from its side of the border.

After the initial steps it took to ban what it dubbed as the illegal activities of some of the more prominent terrorist groups, Pakistan had not done as much as India had wanted it to respect in of winding up its support to the terrorist groups, or so various agencies of the government keep insisting. The agencies concerned say that the Pakistani army continues to provide artillery cover to infiltrators and that there has been no halt to radio communications between terrorist groups active in the Kashmir valley and their handlers on the other side of the LoC. Pakistan's Foreign Minister Kurshid Mehmood Kasuri has, in several interviews, insisted that his government was powerless to stop such infiltration altogether.

And yet, Minister for External Affairs Yashwant Sinha has been quoted in the Pakistani press (provided the reports are accurate) to the effect that he foresaw the future as one in which both India and Pakistan would have to take steps in tandem.

What is clearly in application here now is the formula long advocated by the U.S., among others, that both sides should sustain the dialogue without allowing terrorists to hold the talks hostage.

Since the majority of the opposition parties in India have long advocated the idea of dialogue, it was no surprise that they have not criticised the government for having retracted from its earlier stand. Neither was it surprising that the fanatics on the Hindu Right did express their knee-jerk opposition to a dialogue. However, what was most significant was the fact that while the public might be more indifferent rather than enthused by the idea, it has not rejected it.

The attitudes on the Pakistan side appear on the whole to be more positive than was anticipated. There were analysts on the other side who believe that India has agreed to a dialogue only because it was not able to sustain its Kashmir policy and because it had learnt that it could not browbeat its western neighbour. Such was once the predominant trend in Pakistani interpretations of India's actions, but it no longer appears to be so. The contrary view, that Pakistan was no longer in a position to sustain a policy of confronting India at every turn, is now being asserted with unprecedented vigour.

In fact, the mood in Pakistan on the approach that should be adopted towards India appears to be moving into grounds that it has never covered hitherto.

Anti-nuclear weapons activists in Pakistan, a lot who are more marginalised and treated with more disdain than their Indian counterparts, are being invited to televised discussions and are able to voice their views without being hooted down by the audience. There are reports that even military officers have agreed with participants in open debates who argue that it was time to establish relations with India in the economic and other fields instead of continuing with the sterile confrontation. Ayaz Amir, the perceptive columnist of Dawn who has a fairly creditable record of anticipating the forward thrust of public debate and policy initiatives in Pakistan, has in his most recent dispatch given the impression that the Pakistan army is already moving towards accepting the LoC as the permanent border and has begun to look beyond a horizon that was once circumscribed by India.

The significance of these reports should not be exaggerated. It is too early to say that the more open-minded, though perhaps not necessarily very positive, attitudes that are now being espoused have become the dominant trend in Pakistan's internal debate. Just as in India, the ideology of hostility has been so assiduously cultivated that the traditional ways of thought and action are not easily abandoned. But the fact that entrenched mores of thinking and articulation are being challenged is a factor that cannot be neglected. More so when Indians who have recently visited Pakistan - even people who have been hard-boiled in the official interaction between the two countries and cannot therefore be accused of being nave - have noticed a more wholesome attitude towards India.

Official responses from Pakistan to what would have been considered until recently as unbearable provocation from the Indian side, have been far more subdued than hitherto. Even fire-breathing Ministers such as Sheikh Rashid Ahmed did not have much to say in response when Vajpayee remarked in New Delhi on his return from his tour that any discussion on Kashmir would have to start with Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, In the past, Vajpayee's remark would have been taken as conclusive proof of India's hegemonistic ambitions.

Pakistan did react adversely when Advani, in an address to U.S. academics and officials, accused it once again of being the epicentre of fundamentalist terrorism. Without being unduly charitable to Pakistan, it is still possible to speculate that the Pakistani reaction may have been of a tactical nature, to show the world that the Indian leadership was divided and did not speak with one voice. Such a response was only predictable, given Pakistan's desire to ensure that the U.S. kept India on the path of dialogue and did not get swayed by its own fears of fundamentalist terrorism.

Advani's sideswipe, however, brought into focus one of the fundamental flaws of the dialogue process that has been initiated. It is all too evident that India and Pakistan have entered into this process because they have been pushed to do so by a third party which has no interest whatsoever in putting all its eggs into one basket. The U.S. senses some value in India because of the size of its market and what it can contribute to the stabilisation of a U.S.-designed world order. But it can also see the contribution that Pakistan can make towards the advancement of its policies in respect of West and Central Asia and the wider Muslim world. The U.S. believes that it can keep both India and Pakistan within its grip, and that it needs to, and Washington clearly perceives a dialogue and a settlement between the subcontinental rivals as a means to this end.

While the leaders in both countries have got themselves involved in the U.S.-sponsored dialogue, they too seem to perceive this as primarily a means to curry favour with Washington. They might be taking this dialogue process seriously, but so long as they both keep looking over their shoulders to see if the U.S. has approved of their own latest actions or become critical of the actions of the other, the dialogue is bound to stumble along.

The process would have certainly been healthier, and would probably have had better prospects of success, had the leaders looked primarily at the responses and needs of their own people. What they might have seen is that both India and Pakistan need a settlement for its own sake and that there is scope for building strong constituencies in support of a dialogue on both sides of their common border.

The problem with elephants, however, is that they do not know their own strength, and wiser beings are therefore able to pit the bulls against each other.

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