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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 things moving.

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 game.

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 port development.

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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