By B. Raman
Political and non-governmental reactions to the agreement reached by India’s Foreign Secretary Mrs.Nirupama Rao with her Pakistani counterpart Mr.Salman Bashir during their meeting at Thimpu in Bhutan on February 6 have been mixed. The details of the agreement, which must have been finalized by the two Governments before the two Foreign Secretaries met at Thimpu in the margin of a SAARC Foreign Ministers’ meeting, were announced simultaneously in the two capitals on February 10. The text of an Indian news agency report on the subject is annexed.
The agreement provides for a series of meetings between the concerned officials of the two countries on various contentious issues, which formed part of the so-called composite dialogue, culminating in a visit by Pakistan’s Foreign Minister to New Delhi in July to review jointly with his Indian counterpart Shri S.M.Krishna the results of these meetings. These meetings, which were being held periodically with little forward movement, have been in a state of suspension since the 26/11 terrorist strikes in Mumbai by a group of terrorists of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET).
India had been insisting on effective action by Pakistan against the LET and the Pakistan-based conspirators of the 26/11 terrorist strikes before the dialogue process can be resumed. Pakistan had been insisting on a resumption of the dialogue process without linking the resumption to the progress of the trial against the LET conspirators. Last year, two meetings between the Foreign Secretaries in New Delhi and Islamabad, a bilateral meeting between Shri P.Chidambaram, our Home Minister, and Mr.Rehman Malik, the Pakistani Interior Minister, in the margins of a SAARC Interior Ministers’ meeting in Islamabad and a visit by Shi Krishna to Islamabad in July to meet Mr.Shah Mehmood Quereshi, the then Pakistani Foreign Minister, could not break the deadlock.
The efforts to find a way out of the deadlock were stymied by the intemperate language against Shri Krishna used by Mr.Quereshi at an Islamabad press conference after the visit of Shri Krishna and his insistence on a prior agreement for a resumption of the dialogue process in a time-bound manner before he could visit Delhi to reciprocate the visit of Shri Krishna. When everybody was expecting the deadlock to continue at Thimpu, there has been a surprising agreement to resume the talks without linking the resumption to the pre-26/11 composite dialogue. An attempt has been made to project the forthcoming resumption as a fresh start towards finding a solution to the various bilateral issues and not as a continuation of the old process.
In two interviews to Barkha Dutt of NDTV— one before the announcement and the second after it— Mrs.Nirupama Rao sought to project the agreement on the resumption as an indicator of the pragmatism characterizing the Indian policy towards Pakistan and as presaging a serious, sustained and comprehensive effort to move the process forward while continuing to stick to our strong stand on counter-terrorism.
The critics of the agreement have projected it as a climb-down by India in accepting the Pakistani insistence on a prior agreement on the resumption before the Pakistani Foreign Minister could visit New Delhi. Whether one calls it a climb-down or not, it is a major concession by India to the Pakistani point of view. Such concessions are part of pragmatic diplomacy and should not be seen in negative light provided they do not affect our basic national interests.
The major concession made by India has interestingly coincided with the removal of the Foreign Affairs portfolio from Mr. Quereshi in a Cabinet reshuffle, which followed the day after the Indo-Pak announcement. Mr.Quereshi has reportedly refused to join the new Cabinet if the Foreign Affairs portfolio is not restored to him. Hina Rabbani Khar, who was Minister of State for Finance in the outgoing Cabinet, has been asked to look after the Foreign Affairs portfolio for the present .Mr.Quereshi was reputed to be close to the Army leadership and his erratic handling of Indo-Pak relations and his intemperate language against our Foreign Minister were attributed to his anxiety to please the Army. Will the Army intervene to have the portfolio restored to Mr.Quereshi? Or will it insist on another hard-liner enjoying the Army’s confidence being made the new Foreign Minister? Who is appointed as the new Foreign Minister will indicate what we can expect in the months to come.
A new ambiance, a new lingo, a seeming bonhomie characterized the Thimpu talks between the Foreign Secretaries. Mr.Salman Bashir , who in the past never missed an opportunity to throw stones at India, was unusually and pleasantly restrained. He did not utter a single controversial remark in public. He declined to comment on the progress of the investigation in India into the explosion on board the Samjauta Express train in 2007 in which a large number of Pakistanis were killed. He resisted from linking the terrorist attack on the train to any religion. Mrs. Rao also tried to project an optimistic, forward-looking and not backward-bound posture.
All this showed that before the Foreign Secretaries met considerable spadework had been done through various channels to remove the poison that had been injected by the attitude of Mr.Quereshi towards India. One can keep on arguing whether the concession apparently made by India to Pakistan was wise. A more important question is whether the forthcoming talks will prove to be any different from those held before 26/11. A fresh start alone will not help unless there is a fresh mind-set. Mrs.Rao talked of a new pragmatism. Are there indicators of a similar pragmatism in Pakistan? One will know when a new Foreign Minister gets going in Islamabad. Indian pragmatism alone will not do unless reciprocated by an equal Pakistani pragmatism.
During her interaction with the media at Thimpu, Mrs. Rao referred to the difficulties faced by us in harmonising vision and the ground realities in Indo-Pakistan relations. The ground realities have not changed. Pakistan continues to sponsor terrorism against India. It has not expedited the trial against the 26/11 conspirators. It has refused to act against the anti-India terrorist infrastructure in Pakistani territory. It continues to create difficulties for India in Afghanistan. It continues to build up its military capability, including the nuclear capability, with Chinese assistance. It has granted the Chinese troops a growing presence in the Kashmiri territory under its occupation.
Is it realistic to talk of an Indo-Pakistani vision for their future relations in the face of the continuing ground realities such as these? Is it possible to have a shared vision for the future when the ground realities vitiate the atmosphere for such a vision? These are very valid questions. Equally valid is the fact that all Indo-Pakistan attempts for a forward movement in the bilateral relations have failed so far due to a lack of a shared vision for the future within the parameters of which the dialogue can be held.
Instead of re-starting the dialogue process under whatever name and reaching the same dead-end through a different route, should we not first reach a shared vision for the future and make the dialogue a natural flow from the vision? Such a shared vision cannot come from meetings at the level of officials and in political contacts in the margins of multilateral conferences. It can come only from direct, face-to-face meetings between the two Prime Ministers in each other’s capitals.
A bilateral visit by our Prime Minister to Islamabad is long overdue. The two bilateral visits of Gen.Pervez Musharraf, when he was the President, to India have remained unreciprocated. Of course, Shri Atal Behari Vajpayee, as Prime Minister, visited Islamabad in January 2004, but that was for a SAARC summit. It was reported in the past that the Prime Minister, Dr.Manmohan Singh, was of the view that a bilateral visit by him to Islamabad would be meaningless unless there was a prior agreement of a substantive nature at least on one of the issues affecting the bilateral relations.
The time has come for a re-look at this policy and to start thinking in terms of a bilateral visit by our Prime Minister to Pakistan for discussions with Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani and President Asif Ali Zardari on a single-point agenda of seeking a shared vision for the future. I know this idea will be criticized and ridiculed by the no-changers, but that is not a reason for not proposing it and for avoiding a debate on it. ( 13-1-11)