Thursday, Dec 11, 2003
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By Amit Baruah
IT IS almost certain that Indian and Pakistani leaders will sit down to discuss their differences on the sidelines of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit from January 4-6 in Islamabad. As the Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, told presspersons on December 4, he is not averse to meeting either the Pakistani President, Pervez Musharraf, or his counterpart, Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali.
In saying this, Mr. Vajpayee has been prudent. If India is serious about peace-making with Pakistan, it serves no purpose to shut out General Musharraf from the process in which he holds all the Pakistani cards. It is possible that the Prime Minister may end up meeting both General Musharraf and Mr. Jamali during his three-day stay in Islamabad. By doing so, Mr. Vajpayee would have engaged himself with both the military and civilian arms of the Pakistani establishment.
There are also indications that the External Affairs Minister, Yashwant Sinha, might have a bilateral session with the Pakistani Foreign Minister, Khurshid Kasuri, before the meeting at the level of Heads of Government /State. Mr. Sinha will be in Islamabad a couple of days before the actual SAARC summit gets off the ground for a meeting of Foreign Ministers. By experience gained in Lahore (February 1999) and Agra (July 2001), India has rightly announced a step-by-step approach in dealing with Pakistan. Dealing with Pakistan is not about "event management", but "process management". Lahore, unlike Agra, was a grand show, but a little later Kargil happened.
Since October 22, when India proposed a package of measures intended to enhance confidence and expand transport links with Pakistan, the environment has turned positive. It is almost amusing to see countries that were only recently hurling abuse at each other discover the benefits of engagement. Of course, the April 18 "hand of friendship" speech of Mr. Vajpayee in Srinagar and the telephone call, 10 days later, from Mr. Jamali set the tone for a change in the relationship between the two countries. Step-by-step it may be, but the almost daily steps being taken of late are setting the stage for "enhanced expectations" when Indian and Pakistani leaders meet in Islamabad. There is a need to guard against this.
Any meeting between India and Pakistan will be a mega media event and Islamabad will be no different. Presenting a united face to the media will be as important as the bilateral meeting itself.
Hype must not be allowed to obscure the reality that there are basic, historical differences between India and Pakistan, especially over Jammu and Kashmir. We may get to the dialogue table, but Pakistani expectations on Kashmir can very easily disrupt even a fledgling dialogue process. Ministers, who are not directly dealing with foreign policy issues, need to keep away from the press. Harsh, unnecessary and unauthorised statements can prove to be the undoing of any progress that may become possible at Islamabad.
India, for the moment, may have dropped its demand for a full and final end to cross-border terrorism before talks commence, but terrorism remains an ugly reality in relations between the two countries.
New Delhi needs to be prepared for terrorist strikes, even high-profile actions, between now and January 4; and even while Mr. Vajpayee is in Pakistan. Groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Muhammad can be relied upon to do everything in their destructive power to try and derail the process of India-Pakistan rapprochement.
Engagement cannot wait till the last terrorist is eliminated, but it cannot go forward till Pakistan takes a "strategic decision" to stop backing groups like the Lashkar and the Jaish. Of late, General Musharraf has taken some steps in this direction, but the efficacy of these measures remains to be tested.
It is for the third time in five years that India and Pakistan are heading down the dialogue path at the highest level. Lahore allowed for Foreign Ministers to meet periodically to discuss the whole range of issues, but no meetings ever took place on account of Kargil.
Back on June 23, 1997, they agreed on the framework for an "integrated dialogue" with the issues of peace and security, and Jammu and Kashmir being addressed separately by the Foreign Secretaries.
That is the backdrop. Islamabad represents the future. Traditional positions are known; Indian and Pakistani diplomats have been arguing with each other for the last 55 years they can present the "other" case just as well as their own.
Mr. Vajpayee and General Musharraf / Mr. Jamali cannot fail this time around. They must put in place a credible, periodic process of dialogue that cannot be derailed. And, for the dialogue to succeed, it must entail private engagement and public agreement, backed at the highest level.
Keen observers of the India-Pakistan scene cannot but overlook the ease with which India and Pakistan agreed to the Id-ul-Fitr ceasefire. These things don't just happen, they are made possible by behind-the-scenes diplomacy. Whether it is the China-India model of Special Representatives or dialogue at the level of Foreign Ministers, the two countries must agree on how to move forward. After all, there will be life after Islamabad. There are no quick solutions to problems between India and Pakistan. Keep talking and keep your fingers crossed.
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