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Breaking Indo-Pak Impasse
Open talks with Musharraf


By Praful Bidwai

One doesn't have to be either a Pervez Musharraf admirer or a naïve believer in the inevitability of amicable relations between India and Pakistan to note the significance of the overtures Pakistan's chief executive (CE) has been making to New Delhi. Both his three-part interview to The Hindustan Times and his conversations with the 50-plus Indian participants in the News group's South Asian media conference (including, notably, the sangh parivar's Tarun Vijay and K.R. Malkani) were meant to convey the message that he is not a rabid war-monger; he desires peace with India. Gen Musharraf has been emphatic that he wants a dialogue without preconditions.

It is possible that this is a shrewd public relations exercise to deflect attention from the mess in which Islamabad finds itself in Kashmir, Afghanistan and Central Asia. It is also not ruled out that the architect of Pakistan's Kargil misadventure is atoning for his grave blunder--a year later. But however questionable his motives, they do not constitute a reason for not talking to him, even less for continuing with New Delhi's policy of cornering, confronting and berating Pakistan in every possible forum as an unbalanced, irresponsible power out to spread jehad, with whom there can be no dialogue.

This column argues that New Delhi must open a dialogue with the Musharraf government without preconditions. The Indian government's--and people's--best bet lies in peace and reconciliation with Pakistan. Indeed, Indian diplomacy today faces its greatest test--not in Washington, Moscow and Beijing, or at the UN, but right next door. India cannot enhance its global image unless it proves that it is mature enough to overcome the "Pakistan syndrome" which has plagued its foreign policy for half a century. To say this is neither to deny Pakistan's support to secessionists in Kashmir, nor to play down India's many disputes with Islamabad.

Many people who advocate reconciliation with Pakistan advance two very persuasive arguments. The first is culturalist. It holds that in some sense, Partition created an "artificial" divide within a seamless, relatively unified culture. This has made it impossible for people to do what should come "naturally" to them: e.g. cross the border at Lahore or Amritsar, have a hearty meal, see an Indian/Pakistani film, listen to music which they share, interact with their "own kind" of people, and come back. Urvashi Butalia's The Other Side of Silence (Kali) is a powerful plea for transcending Partition's trauma and bridging the divide. Salman Rushdie describes it as "magnificent and necessary book, rigorous and compassionate, thought-provoking and moving".

There is much to be said for this, although the argument only applies to a part of undivided India--Punjab, Sindh and some segments of Uttar Pradesh. Although India and Pakistan have evolved within divergent socio-political frameworks, the problems that confront them are not dissimilar. There is much to be gained through interaction and cooperation, whether social, literary or political, and a lot to be lost through mutual exclusion. To recognise this, one need not contend, as some well-meaning advocates of a sub-continental confederation do, that geography will eventually prevail over history (of strife and separation).

No less powerful is the economic argument that India and Pakistan will gain greatly from cooperation in trade, industry and energy. They can only lose by not forming the core of a regional trading bloc. Such blocs have effectively promoted rapid growth, e.g. as in the European Union, ASEAN, and North America. The complementarities of the Indian and Pakistani economies too offer rich possibilities. Just bringing their $2 billion-plus underground trade to the surface would immensely benefit both economies. The saving from liberalised trade alone will exceed all foreign direct investment into the region, to attract which its governments exert themselves so much.

A shining example of such cooperation is the proposed Iran-India natural gas pipeline via Pakistan. This would provide fuel at a fraction of the cost of shipped natural gas. India's gas requirements are expected to rise four-fold by 2010 (and Pakistan's to double). Pakistan would stand to earn $600 million annually through transit fees alone. That apart, the pipeline will enable India and Pakistan to join, perhaps dominate, the Great Game (played since the 19th century between Britain and Russia) over Central Asia, with its vast natural resources.

While one need not be an ardent supporter of an energy--intensive gas--based economic growth model, the pipeline scores commendably over the present sea-based import strategy. The fear that Pakistan will use it as a military target or blackmail instrument is exaggerated. Strong international guarantees can prevent this. Besides, Pakistan has its own self-interest in the $1.1 billion pipeline-based refinery Iran is helping it build. Gen Musharraf's pipeline offer is likely to spur interest among Indian businessmen, especially those with a stake in hydrocarbons.

However, there is an even more powerful argument for breaking the India-Pakistan impasse. This political case arises from three considerations: the need to break the vicious spiral of strategic hostility which poses a unique danger in South Asia; the need to unshackle New Delhi's (and Islamabad's) global perspectives and regional agendas from the Kashmir crisis; and decommunalising both countries' domestic politics. Mutual strategic hostility is one of the greatest obstacles to democracy and development in both countries, driving and reinforcing social prejudice, religious bigotry and militaristic nationalism.

The painful truth is that the Indian sub-continent is the world's only region which has witnessed a continuous hot-cold war for half a century, which shows no signs of abating. East-West rivalry ended a decade ago, with mixed results. The hot-cold war between Israel and the Arabs too has ended-again for better and for worse (witness Palestine's plight). Even the two Koreas have reached a level of reconciliation that seemed inconceivable only months ago. India and Pakistan are the sole exception to this trend. Their potential for mutual destruction has escalated frightfully after their nuclearisation. A war between them now is essentially unwinnable. Today, millions of their civilians have become vulnerable to a nuclear catastrophe against which there is no defence. Such hostility will only worsen-unless the impasse is broken.

This itself constitutes a pressing reason for a Lahore-II, with serious arms reduction and strategic restraint, not just confidence-building measures. But no less pressing is domestic politics in both countries into which their strategic rivalry ineluctably feeds. Mutual hostility validates communal politics in both societies. If the image of an "overbearing", hostile neighbour did not exist, the Jamaat-i-Islami would have to invent India. A Pakistan at peace with India, and not helping the Kashmir militancy, would blunt the edge of Hindutva's appeal. With India-Pakistan reconciliation, two of the three prongs of the communal-Hindu Trishul- (mandir, Uniform Civil Code and Article 370) would lose their potency. The forces of prejudice, distrust and rivalry would lose their vicious edge.

That's why the reconciliation process must begin. For a dialogue to start, New Delhi must stop stipulating unachievable preconditions, and give up the pretence that its opposition to the Musharraf regime is based upon "democratic" high principle rather than the mundane calculation of courting Washington at Islamabad's expense through US-style democracy rhetoric. Like Washington, New Delhi has done brisk business with a range of military dictators, from Sukarno to the Shah, Ne Win to Pinochet, "Papa Doc" Duvalier to Zia-ul-Haq; and Marcos to Zia-ur-Rahman. It maintains close ties with the Burmese junta and the King of Bhutan. It would be embarrassing for Mr Vajpayee to be reminded that he was among the world's few foreign ministers who failed to condemn Bhutto's judicial hanging under Zia-ul-Haq!

To talk to Gen Musharraf is not to dignify him: it is merely to accept the reality of his being Pakistan's CE. Even the progressive community in Pakistan is divided in its attitude to Gen Musharraf. While the bulk of it believes that that the main issue before it is democracy vs military rule, a significant section thinks it is the revival of the institutions which Mr Nawaz Sharif systematically destroyed. The division shows the issue is complex. New Delhi should not meddle with it as if it were a participant in Pakistan's domestic politics.

A dialogue with Gen Musharraf does not mean conceding that Islamabad has radically changed its Kashmir policy. But did Pakistan execute a dramatic change before Mr Vajpayee rode the bus to Lahore? Nor will it do to argue that the Kargil "betrayal" makes a dialogue impossible. Kargil did vitiate the India-Pakistan security equation. But an even greater blow came from nuclearisation. Here, India, not Pakistan, was the initiator. Past mistakes, misperceptions and misunderstandings must not be papered over. But they do not negate the need for a dialogue; rather, they underscore it. Beginning that process in no way narrows New Delhi's options. On the contrary, it might produce results--if not a breakthrough, then at least greater mutual trust and a revival of the SAARC process which India wantonly torpedoed last year. A dialogue offers a win-win opportunity which only an extraordinarily foolhardy government will squander.---end---

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