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Bus And Beyond
- The UPA government cannot hide a drift in its foreign policy

During the last conversation that this columnist had with J.N. Dixit shortly before his death, the late national security adviser said he was working towards a breakthrough in the India-Pakistan peace process by February. Mehbooba Mufti, head of the People's Democratic Party in Jammu and Kashmir, who was in Dubai a fortnight ago, made an important point to a source I trust ' a source who played a major role in one of several secret meetings between Dixit and his Pakistani counterpart, Tariq Aziz. The point she made is one that Indians who are now writing or commenting on last week's agreement between India and Pakistan about the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service should not underplay if they want that arrangement to succeed.

The late national security adviser told Mehbooba that the agreement he was negotiating with Aziz on the lines of the one announced by external affairs minister, K. Natwar Singh, and his Pakistani counterpart, Khurshid Kasuri, last week would be a vindication of India's position since 1947 that all of Jammu and Kashmir ' including the areas now under Pakistan's control ' is an integral part of India. Citizens of India, including those born in Srinagar, Baramulla or Kargil, Dixit told Mehbooba, should never be asked to carry their passports while travelling to Gilgit or Skardu, just as they should never have to take their passports while going to Calcutta or Bangalore from another part of India.

Mehbooba agreed. Section 3 of her state's constitution, which went into effect on Republic Day in 1957, says that 'the state of Jammu and Kashmir is and shall be an integral part of the Union of India'. Section 4 of this constitution defines the territories of Jammu and Kashmir as those which on August 15, 1947, were under the suzerainty of the 'ruler of the state'. These include those parts of the state which Pakistan touts as 'Azad Kashmir'.

Dixit had a deep sense of history and precedents. Those familiar with his style know that he worked backwards in time to fit Indian foreign policy into the structure of certain priorities which he considered paramount. Until the second India-Pakistan war in 1965, Kashmiris used to cross the ceasefire line in Kashmir without passports, on the strength of permits issued by authorities on both sides of the line to facilitate family reunions and meetings of friends.

How is it possible for India to get back to 1947 unless it first returns to 1965 in its determination to sort out the Kashmir issue' Or, for that matter, how can any government in New Delhi implement parliament's resolution of February 22, 1994 demanding that 'Pakistan must vacate the areas of the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir, which they have occupied through aggression' unless it first changes the status quo along the line of control'

The problem with the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service is not so much with what was agreed between the two foreign ministers as with the manner in which it was done and the activities surrounding this 'historic' thaw between India and Pakistan.

Pakistan swung into a diplomatic blitzkrieg as soon as Singh headed home, but gauging by New Delhi's follow-up ' or lack of it ' to what took place in Islamabad last week, South Block could well be in soporific Bharatpur, not on Raisina Hill. Pakistan's prime minister, Shaukat Aziz, was in Saudi Arabia last weekend, briefing his country's traditional ally. Aziz, equally importantly, made sure that he was the first head of state or government to visit the headquarters of the Organization of Islamic Conference to meet and greet OIC's new secretary-general, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu. Next week, Pervez Musharraf plans to be in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan even as Kasuri, Singh's interlocutor in Islamabad, hot-footed on Monday to Tokyo to brief the Japanese on the India-Pakistan thaw.

Defenders of the United Progressive Alliance government's foreign policy are likely to counter such criticism by pointing out that New Delhi too saw diplomatic activity matching Islamabad's: Britain's Jack Straw and Iran's Kamal Kharrazi came calling on South Block, for instance. Such defence would be well taken. But it cannot hide the fact that while New Delhi continues to see a lot of comings and goings of VIP visitors, much of its diplomatic activity is aimless. It cannot hide a drift in foreign policy in the last one month although in its first 200 days or so, this government gave a good account of itself on diplomacy.

The significant difference is that Pakistan, in contrast to India, is working towards clear objectives. Whatever Musharraf does, he does with a purpose. The deficit in last week's India-Pakistan announcements is that Singh gifted Musharraf a powerful tool to pursue his goals. But India lacks a game plan in dealing with Islamabad even as the UPA government's neighbourhood diplomacy is rapidly falling apart.

Dixit would never have agreed to the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service as an end in itself despite its populist appeal or the political compulsions behind it in preserving the alliance between the Congress and the PDP in Kashmir. When he sat down secretly at four different locations with his Pakistani counterpart and attempted to put together an agenda for India-Pakistan engagement, he also had a game plan, an integral part of which was India's neighbourhood diplomacy.

The cornerstone of that plan was further improvement in relations with Beijing and definite steps towards resolving the border dispute with China. If bold action is to be taken to go beyond cosmetic steps and genuinely improve relations with Pakistan ' and that involves risks ' the Indian government would have to simultaneously cease worrying about its borders with China, bring about a significant reduction in troops deployed on that border and be ready to back its overtures of friendship with Islamabad with an overwhelming military option just in case things went sour. This may appear to be a contradiction, but that is a valuable lesson which Atal Bihari Vajpayee learned from his bus journey to Lahore, which was followed by Kargil.

It was clear during the visit of Chinese vice-foreign-minister Wu Dawei, a month ago, that this process which gained momentum under Dixit had received a setback with his death. That momentum cannot be regained unless Singh ends his insistence that Shyam Saran should be India's 'special representative on the boundary question'.

Saran is one of the best foreign secretaries to have held that office and his expertise on China is unquestioned, but the National Democratic Alliance government raised the dialogue on the boundary question to a political level after China complained that years of talks at the official level had made inadequate progress. Singh's insistence on micro-managing this vital policy has already damaged India's game plan that Dixit put together: the Chinese prime minister, Wen Jiabao, was to have been in New Delhi in March, according to the agenda that Dixit was working on. Instead Wen will now be in Islamabad on April 5.

The most visible example of the collapse of the UPA government's neighbourhood policy is in Nepal. Inevitably, it will have a fallout on Bhutan in the days to come. Bangladesh presents a scenario in terms of Indian policy that can only be described as pathetic. In claiming well-deserved praise for its 'tsunami diplomacy', South Block failed to let the rest of the Indian government ' including the prime minister's office ' know that Pakistan's tsunami relief effort was very focussed. Actually, two Pakistani naval ships were the first to provide relief in the Maldives. Sorties of Pakistani C-130 aircraft took relief supplies to Indonesia and Islamabad made an effort to match Indian assistance to Sri Lanka while some of the very men in South Block who were party to the decision to send the Indian Peace Keeping Force to Sri Lanka were engaged in an unseemly act of criticizing the nature of American help to Colombo.

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