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The bottom up approach
May 28, 2003
Prime Minister Vajpayee's peace initiative has come as welcome respite from the policy of confrontation followed by the two countries over the past few years. India-Pakistan relations have been on a rollercoaster where somehow there appear to be more downs than ups.
This time around, there is more cause for optimism.
To start with, it is generally appreciated by both countries that this is their last chance for peace. Lahore did not achieve much and was followed by Kargil. Agra was a washout from the start and ended as a point scoring contest. The relations between India and Pakistan worsened and reached a nadir after the attack on the Indian Parliament. The speed with which diplomatic relations were restored and communications links repaired indicates that both are itching for peace and a normalisation of relations.
Secondly, although they have as usual denied any use of force or pressure, one suspects the US is playing a much bigger role than meets the eye. The peace initiative was quickly followed by visits to each other's countries by Richard Armitage and Brajesh Mishra. An invitation to Deputy Prime Minister Advani to visit Washington followed. Mishra had talks with President Bush. All this indicates a more than peripheral involvement by America in this part of the world.
By a coincidence 2004 happens to be an election year for both the United States and India. President Bush needs to show a major foreign policy success before the election to counter the continuing downturn in the US economy. The quick end to the Iraq war may have boosted his ratings at home but the success will quickly be forgotten, especially if the resulting effort of
establishing a pliable and democratic government ends in a mess.
The effort to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is going nowhere. The India-Pakistan dispute is more amenable to a solution, especially if the US applies pressure at the right place at the right time.
In India, despite success in Gujarat, the BJP realises it has played out the Hindutva card. An end to the conflict in Kashmir and improvement of relations with our neighbour will have a more positive effect on the elections than mere repeating Ayodhya and distributing trishuls.
If both India and Pakistan avoid the pitfalls of the past and go about the process of peace in a sensible manner there is no reason why the present initiative cannot end in détente between the two countries.
Whenever there are efforts to renew the dialogue and improve relations between the two countries we go from one extreme to another. There is immediate talk of a summit. The Pakistani prime minister has already invited Vajpayee to Pakistan or says he will come here. Learning from the lessons of Agra the Indian government has wisely decided to take a step by step approach.
Summits are the icing on the cake. They are a great stage for signing agreements, handshakes and photo opportunities. Unless the grounds are fully prepared for a summit they rarely achieve anything. Summits are the dome on the temple. Unless the foundation and the main building are ready the dome is bound to fall down.
Summits last for a few days. The problems between India and Pakistan are so complex that it is impossible to solve then in a few days. There is a general hurry to produce results or sign the agreement before the two leaders depart. In such an atmosphere some crucial issues are either sidelined or are forgotten. The Simla agreement was chalked out in such a haste and the crucial issue of the Siachen boundary was left in a woolly state.
Summits are also media events. Both leaders are in the spotlight and there is intense pressure to play to the gallery. Expectations run high and people in each country expect their leader not only to achieve results but to show that he did not hand over the country on a platter. At Agra, General Musharraf was more keen to enhance his image of a tough talking leader than achieving any breakthrough in the India-Pakistan impasse.
It took more than two years of steady and step-by-step diplomacy to thaw the 20-year freeze in US-China relations. It started with pingpong diplomacy. Then came the secret visit of Henry Kissinger and improvement in trade relations. Finally, after nearly two years of preparations, Nixon made his historic visit to China.
In the case of our two countries, there is little reason to rush into a summit and repeat the failure of Agra. There is much to be done before relations can be said to be near normalcy. A few steps are already being taken. Both high commissioners have been named and accepted without any bickering. They will be in place in a few weeks. Air links have been restored. This should be followed by the restoration of both road and rail links. Issue of visas should be simplified and liberalised.
Sports offers a good opportunity to normalise relations. The ban on the two countries playing cricket is irrational. One suspects the ban was less to do with politics and more to the fear of losing to a powerful Pakistani team. Well, most of the stalwarts of the old team are now gone and India could easily take on the young and inexperienced Pakistani team. The matches should be resumed immediately, to start off in neutral countries and then finally by visiting each other.
Cricket, of course, is not the only game. Hockey, football and athletics offer equal opportunities.An obvious place to start this bottom up approach is in the maritime field. For years, away from public glare, the maritime agencies of both countries, the Coast Guard of India and the Maritime Security Agency of Pakistan, have been indulging in the tit for tat game of arresting fishing boats and fishermen off the Gujarat coast. The fishermen and their boats then languish for upward of two years in prison. Finally, thanks to the efforts of NGOs and after much fanfare, the fishermen are released only for the next lot to be arrested again a few days later. This unnecessary game goes on while the fishermen and their families suffer.
Before the Agra summit India released all fishermen in its custody and gave instructions to the Coast Guard not to arrest any more. Unfortunately, the initiative was short lived. Pakistan did not reciprocate. It is time for both countries to revive the initiative. All fishermen in each other's custody should be released immediately.
Both countries should also announce a one year moratorium on the arrest of fishermen. They should be let off after a warning. The period of one year can be used to equip fishing boats with advanced navigation equipment such as hand-held GPS sets and a programme of education.
The present thaw in Indo-Pak relations can also be used to make one more effort at sorting out the maritime boundary problem. Given the will of the two governments and an attitude of give and take there is nothing insurmountable in the boundary question that has refused a solution all these years. The disputed area is barely 2,000 sq kilometres and can be divided between the two countries. At worst, the area can remain disputed and the rest of the boundary can be agreed upon.
These are just a few examples of how the two countries can go about preparing the ground before finally holding a summit sometime next year. A meeting between the two prime ministers is too premature at this stage. It will achieve nothing except a repetition of Agra.
Admiral J G Nadkarni (retd)