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India-Pakistan relations: To talk or not to talk, that’s the question

If India lets “old, unhappy far-off things and battles long ago” cloud the opening that is on offer, it will be a significant opportunity missed.

Updated: May 13, 2013, 08.16 AM IST
It is cowardice not statesmanship to shy away from dialogue.
It is cowardice not statesmanship to shy away from dialogue.
By Mani Shankar Aiyar

The outcome was never in doubt. It has been Nawaz Sharif all the way. He returns to the throne after 14 years of exile, declaring with regard to India that, “We will start from where we were interrupted in 1999.” Many in India would regard that as ambiguous, for 1999 was as much the Year of the Lahore Declaration as it was the Year of Kargil. The new prime minister of Pakistan, therefore, has his work cut out, as much in persuading the Indian establishment that he is sincere, able and willing in his protestations of friendship as in persuading sceptics in Pakistan that he is not about to do a Munich with India.

To go by TV commentary on our channels, it would seem that Kargil will haunt him in exploring avenues of cooperation with India. This notwithstanding his commitment to a commission of enquiry into the events leading to Kargil, his offer to share that report with India, and his call for a “joint investigation” into the actors and actions responsible for 26/11. But if India lets “old, unhappy far-off things and battles long ago” cloud the opening that is on offer, it will be a significant opportunity missed.

For Sharif has not only professed the desire to write a “new chapter” in relations between the two countries, he has also indicated a two-track methodology for doing so. On the one hand, he states the obvious but often forgotten fact that both countries have stated positions from which they cannot backtrack until mutually acceptable via media have been worked out.

At the same time, to not allow ourselves to become prisoners of these irreconcilable stated positions, Sharif suggests a “backchannel” for discovering or evolving options that could then be considered by the political authority. In 1999, such a backchannel had indeed been started by mutual agreement between Vajpayee and Sharif, but hardly had it got under way when Kargil and Sharif’s overthrow threw the backchannel into disarray.

But Manmohan Singh and Pervez Musharraf revived the backchannel and between 2004 and 2007 so much progress was made that if Musharraf had not provoked the judiciary, which ended in the termination of his presidency, the intended visit of the Indian PM to Islamabad in March 2007 might well have brought the results of that backchannel interaction to fruition. There is, therefore, a tried and tested mechanism that awaits revival.

India Wasn’t An Issue

But more even than the diplomatic options, what gives one hope for forward movement is that neither India nor Kashmir was the issue in these elections, with an unprecedented turnout of voters, of who one-third were first-time voters. Many factors are responsible for this.

One is the mess in the economy. A businessman himself, Sharif, like his electorate, understands that nothing would boost their ailing economy quicker or more easily than trade and investment relations with India. Second, the danger to Pakistan from terrorism and fundamentalism is far greater than to India. Their domestic war on terrorism eclipses most other concerns.

Third, their relations with the US are more troubled than with India. Fourth, the armed forces are far more concerned with running Pakistan’s enormously profitable and No. 1 business enterprise, the
Fauji Foundation, than with getting bogged down in a bankrupt national economy. Fifth, the edge has been taken off defining Pakistan’s nationhood in terms of not being India. The passage of the Partition generation and the fading out of even the Midnight’s Children has ushered in a new mindset in a majority of Pakistan’s population.

It is a change that most Indians are yet to grasp. Ready-made solutions are not in the offing. There is much hard bargaining ahead. It is only if we have our enlightened self-interest in view, and the self-confidence and self-reliance to recognise that dialogue does not mean surrender, that non-engagement cannot lead to solutions, and that India-Pakistan relations cannot be rendered hostage to terrorism, that the opportunity now available is not lost sight of. One legacy of the previous regime needs to be fostered: former Pakistan foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar’s repeated invocation of the need for “uninterrupted and uninterruptible” dialogue. There can be no other way forward.

It is cowardice not statesmanship to shy away from dialogue.

(The writer is a member of Rajya Sabha)

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