The Rediff Special
Give the Gujral Doctrine A Chance
B G Verghese says the Gujral doctrine is the only thing that will
work in India's relations with its neighbours.
The so-called Gujral doctrine has been treated by critics with
a combination of dismay and derision as a policy of weakness and
vacillation in a world where realpolitik matters. A country,
it is said, must know its interest and pursue them relentlessly.
Anything else can only send out wrong signals of lack of purpose
and willingness to compromise even on essentials. Making "concessions"
and conciliatory gestures is likely to encourage the other party
to be increasingly loud and demanding in the belief that a little
more pressure will bring further dividends.
This encapsulation captures the substance of the criticism aimed
at the prime minister. However, I K Gujral is, in this regard,
being more sinned against than sinning. The line that he has adopted
is eminently sound and calculated to serve the national interest
rather than injure it in any way.
Far from betraying pusillanimity, the Gujral doctrine manifests
strength and reason. To hector and bully smaller neighbours or
to be inflexible or patronising is not to be strong. Nor does
use of pungent language imply firmness. Indeed, a patient and
reasoned response that accommodates the other party's viewpoint
as far as possible is generally far more effective. And all nations
pride their self-respect as much as we do.
The Gujral doctrine postulates that reciprocity among asymmetrical
partners in South Asia needs to ensure equity rather than absolute
equality in terms of any quid pro quo, certainly initially. India's
sheer physical size and weight of numbers and its economic and
military power in relation to its smaller SAARC neighbours, not
excluding Pakistan, can be intimidating. Hence, it may not pay
to insist on strict parity on all things and at all times. The
smaller partner must feel emboldened to accept a fuller relationship
at a pace and level at comfort that it may be allowed to determine.
If India follows such a path, it will be serving, not abandoning,
its best interests. What matters is the end result. Confidence-building
may take a while but is worth the political investment. One can
give today to get tomorrow or trade a 'concession' in one sector
to make a gain in another area. The process is as important as
the event and, at the start, perhaps even more important to get
All this is, of course, elementary. But what is obvious is all
too often forgotten. And that has, in part, been the sad story
of India's regional diplomacy over many years. We have been caught
in an impasse for varying periods of time with one or other neighbour.
Little has moved. We have missed windows of opportunity only because
we have 'stood firm,' unwillingly to make a gesture
that would have broken the deadlock.
The long-established and totally infructuous status quo, has
by its very familiarity, come to be regarded by all too many as
a stable, well-understood situation if not a state of bliss,
any departure from which could mean pain, even disaster. This
is the creeping mindset that has frozen attitudes. Hence, every
'concession' is a sellout to be registered. What is ignored, or
most often never calculated, is the cost of playing a zero-sum
All theory? Move to examples.
The recent Ganga Accord with Bangladesh over sharing lean season
flow below Farakka has begun to dissipate the tensions that prevented
any movement on other issues like transit, the absence of which
has prolonged the geo-political isolation of the North-East. The
notional of the 'concession' made on water-sharing is modest compared
to the emerging possibilities and potential gains from a richer
relationship on a number of fronts. The opportunity costs of the
cusecs fought over for years has never been calculated. The argument
tied India down to ignoring its true interest in West Bengal's
Earlier, India blotted its copybook badly in the manner in which
it reneged on the Teen Bigha agreement for close on 33 years.
Currently it has been extremely tardy in liberalising trade with
Bangladesh with which it runs a huge balance of payments surplus.
Likewise, the Mahakali Agreement with Nepal has helped bury the
Tanakpur project dispute and provides a framework for moving forward
on water resource development. Nepal's vast hydro potential and
regulated releases of water therefrom to the Indian plains would
immensely benefit both countries. But such long-term co-operation
can only be based on a stable, good neighbourly relationship.
On the other hand, were India arrogantly to try and bend Nepal
to its will rather than seek its friendship, it would be resentful
and could well turn to its only other neighbour, China.
Similarly, if Nepal desires to review the Indo-Nepal treaty, why
not? Ultimately, treaties do not bind; it is the friendship underlying
them that matters.
Because of its size and geography, India has many more options
than Bangladesh or Nepal and can therefore afford to be generous
and accommodating. It would pay to take the first step and walk
the extra mile. And while it is necessary to be fair, it is useful
to be seen as fair.
Is Pakistan different? It is a bigger power and India-Pakistan
relations have also been particularly embittered. Nevertheless,
not seeking reciprocity in granting visas, encouraging cultural
exchanges, and giving Pakistan time to reciprocate MFN treatment
to India does send across a message of goodwill and co-operation
that has not gone unnoticed in Pakistan or internationally. At
the same time, this does not preclude being firm in dealing with
crossborder intervention or firing across the LOC in Jammu and
Kashmir or in the matter of other issue of concern.
Does 'standing firm' entail denying that there is a
Kashmir dispute? The ostrich isn't India's national bird. What
is the issue is not the fact, but the nature of the dispute. And
why the fuss, now hopefully overcome, over the nomenclature or
modalities or the proposed 'working group' on Kashmir? As long
as India refuses to discuss Kashmir specifically, it enables Pakistan
to set the agenda and define the geography, ethnography, history
and terminology of the 'Kashmir question'.
And since India has maintained a stoic silence, the rest of the
world and many Indians have come to believe that the Kashmir question
is what Pakistan says it is.
The Gujral doctrine implies a process, not an objective. It aims
at confidence-building, changing mindsets, placing procedures
and even issues against a larger and longer perspective of national
interest. Too many critics tend to focus on events rather than
on the process. Ancient animosities take time to dissolve. Patience
too is part of the Gujral doctrine.
A good strategy is to determine where one wants to get to and
then work backwards to see what it is that one must do -- or not
do -- in order to take the first measured steps towards the desired
goal. We have spent too many years going nowhere in the South
Asian neighbourhood. And all this masterly inactivity has been
at great cost. The Gujral doctrine has engendered some forward
movement. Give it a chance.
Kind courtesy: Sunday magazine
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