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December 9, 2002

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Praful Bidwai

Break the ice now!

If Mr L K Advani wanted to further lower the quality of the BJP's gutter-level election campaign in Gujarat, he could not have done so more effectively than by challenging Pakistan to fight a "fourth war" with India. On November 30, in Bhuj, the deputy PM said: "I dare Pakistan to fight a direct war with India instead of engaging in a proxy war ... Let us fight it out face to face. We have fought thrice, let there be a fourth war. Of course, that would be the final war." Advani linked his vituperation against Pakistan to Gujarat's asmita (pride) and lavished praise on Narendra Modi for his "exemplary" handling of the anti-Muslim violence -- independent India's most shameful state-sponsored pogrom.

It is important to ask who gave Advani the authority to sacrifice millions of Indians in this "final war", which will inevitably lead to a nuclear holocaust. The main casualties won't be soldiers or paramilitary troops, but non-combatant unarmed citizens. The deputy PM was speaking much like a street-level or mohalla bully, emulating the sordid example set by Delhi BJP rabble-rouser Madan Lal Khurana just after the Indian nuclear tests of May 1998, but before the Pakistani blasts, when he challenged Islamabad to war "at a place and time of its choosing".

A day later, in Solan and Shimla, Atal Bihari Vajpayee refused to temper down Advani's shocking remarks. Instead, he relaxed his own earlier stipulation that the Godhra massacre should not be made an election issue. More pertinently, he linked his going to Islamabad for the proposed SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) summit to Pakistan "completely" ending its support to "cross-border" terrorism. The possibility of this visit is already slender because New Delhi has made Vajpayee's participation conditional upon Pakistan granting India "Most Favoured Nation" (MFN) status under a World Trade Organisation agreement -- ie putting India on par with its other trading partners. Now, the possibility may be reduced to zero.

Vajpayee would be ill-advised to lay down any such conditions for his participation in the summit (which was due on January 11 to 13, but was postponed indefinitely on Monday). His participation, and the resumption of a bilateral India-Pakistan dialogue, are both necessary and in India's own interest. If even one head of government fails to attend a SAARC summit, it has to be cancelled -- to the detriment of the region as a whole.

A lesson from the cancelled summits of the past, including that in 1999 following Kargil, is that the annulment ill-serves the cause for which SAARC was set up. The progress, peace and prosperity of the 1.3 billion people of South Asia are bound up with regional cooperation. This will be jeopardised if the planned Islamabad summit does not materialise. That will serve nobody's interests.

The official Indian position on the summit is inconsistent. For instance, in October, New Delhi denied that the summit dates were even communicated to it. The truth is that the foreign ministers of all seven SAARC states met in New York three months ago and agreed to confirm the proposed dates by September 23. All barring India did so.

India baulked and stalled, and later linked its participation to "progress on economic cooperation", itself to be determined at the Committee on Economic Cooperation meeting in Kathmandu on October 26-27. This reviewed how far the seven have moved towards creating a South Asian Free Trade Agreement by the end of 2002. India believes Pakistan is dragging its feet on this; therefore a summit would serve no purpose because "economic cooperation is the heart of SAARC".

The Indian view is contested by all other SAARC members. The consensus at Kathmandu was that "considerable work" needs to be done before the SAFTA framework matures. For instance, it had been earlier agreed that an in-depth study must be done on the likely effects of a transition to SAFTA. Yet, no consultant has been appointed to undertake it. Pakistan insists that the MFN issue must be delinked from the SAARC process; MFN pertains to requirements under the WTO, and should be discussed bilaterally. The WTO agreement contains certain exceptional provisions, based on which a state can delay granting another MFN status. Bangladesh, a "least developed country", also wants more time.

India is thus forcing the pace of trade liberalisation. It risks losing the regional cooperation forum itself. For its part, Pakistan is reluctant to give India MFN status. This is because its trade and industry chambers are apprehensive of Indian goods flooding their market. Other SAARC states too have similar fears. India would do well to address those and opt for a slower pace of trade liberalisation within SAARC, while negotiating voluntary fast-track agreements with individual countries, as it did with Sri Lanka.

All this can be negotiated and discussed. But for that to happen, a summit must take place. India (or Pakistan) cannot make SAARC a hostage to particularistic individual concerns, or bilateral disputes. Nor should India cancel a summit citing cross-border terrorism. If this were a valid argument, especially after December 13 last, why did Vajpayee attend the Kathmandu summit in January this year (when he reluctantly shook hands with General Musharraf)? Why did he go to Lahore in February 1999, even though there had been no let-up in militant violence in Kashmir in a year?

India did not break off diplomatic relations with Pakistan when militancy erupted in Kashmir in 1989, which Pakistan aided; the two states negotiated military confidence-building measures over two years. Throughout the 1990s, India held talks with different Pakistani regimes. The Agra Summit too took place -- without a change in the border situation. This changed after 9/11, when India adopted a macho, US-style "tough" stance.

Given the range of reasons and excuses New Delhi has cited -- including the argument that it does not know whom to talk to in Pakistan -- it seems loath to let the summit happen. Vajpayee has further confirmed this by asking: "What's the use of going for a SAARC meeting when [Pakistan] is not prepared to talk on any issue except Kashmir" (Shimla, Dec 1). This is extraordinary. The SAARC summit is not, cannot be, about Kashmir. The association's charter forbids a discussion of contentious bilateral issues.

Yet, there is every reason why India should reopen a dialogue with Pakistan, following the welcome dismantlement of the 10-month-long massive mobilisation at the border. There is a new civilian government in Islamabad. Although all power does not vest in it, and it is a hotchpotch put together by dubious means, it is not a hardline regime; and it excludes the pro-Taliban Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal. General Musharraf was manipulative and undemocratic, but he did succeed in keeping the fanatics out.

The new prime minister, Mir Zafrullah Khan Jamali, is supposed to be a liberal. He was associated with a progressive students' organisation in Baluchistan. There is no reason to suppose that he will function as a puppet of the military. Pakistan's recent history shows that even those who enter office as stooges of the army (eg M K Junejo and Nawaz Sharief) can end up fighting it, once a struggle for control breaks out.

The new foreign minister, Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri, has an even more positive image -- on account of his distinguished lawyer-father, his education, and his membership of Asghar Khan's principled Tehriq-i-Istiqlal party. He is associated with informal Track-II diplomacy and favours better relations with India. His first statement on being sworn in emphasised improved relations as his priority. Mani Shankar Aiyar, himself a former diplomat who has served in Pakistan and who has known Kasuri from his college days in England, thinks highly of him. Aiyar believes he will treat "our negotiators in an honest, straightforward way, without resorting to wile or guile".

It is possible that Jamali and Kasuri won't be allowed to improve relations with India. But India must give them a chance. It must not prejudge the issue by declaring that the new government cannot change policies. Freezing diplomatic contact with Pakistan has not helped India on the counter-terrorism front or on economic and political agendas. Indeed, it has caused suffering to ordinary people, strengthened communal perceptions and forces in both countries, and intensified stasis and stagnation in the entire region.

There is an urgent case for resuming negotiations on all issues, including terrorism and Kashmir. And it is imperative to restore people-to-people contacts as well as diplomatic links. At the end of the day, Pakistan must be persuaded that it is futile to try to wrest Kashmir by force or even bring India to the negotiating table by supporting terrorism. This can only happen if the ground situation in Kashmir improves, and if New Delhi follows a principled, equitable, policy vis--vis all its neighbours. India has nothing to gain by pursuing devious agendas and hegemonic plans. Its security and prosperity lies primarily in improving relations with its neighbours. Despite problems, that category includes Pakistan, with which India's destiny is tied, one way or the other.

Praful Bidwai

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