Six weeks have gone by since the offer of the Indian prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, to resume the dialogue with Pakistan. It has got a reticently positive response from Pakistan. The media, as usual, proceeded to be enthusiastic about break-throughs and new beginnings. It is worthwhile undertaking a reality check on what has happened since Vajpayee’s offer of a dialogue and the response of the Pakistani president, Pervez Musharraf, welcoming the offer.
The international community has generally welcomed the initiative. Whatever the governments of India and Pakistan may say, a certain amount of tactful but insistent pressure from the United States of America, the precedent of pre-emptive intrusive action in the US invasion of Iraq and public pronouncements by US officials that south Asia is nuclearly the most dangerous area in the world, impelled the Vajpayee initiative and the Pakistani response. While Pakistan has had no hesitation in accepting the reality of this pressure, the government of India continues to pretend that there was no such pressure. We seem to have a pathological aversion towards acknowledging the impact of realpolitik in inter-state relations.
It is good to see the US being sensitive to Indian complexes. There have been repeated assurances by US officials that they do not envisage playing a mediatory role. The government of Pakistan initially gave its game away by converting dialogue into a publicity exercise. The Pakistani prime minister, Mir Zafrullah Khan Jamali, suggested an early summit with Vajpayee despite the unfortunate experience that both the countries had gone through at Lahore in February 1999 and at Agra in July 2001.
India’s response that the dialogue should be a structured and gradual process bestowed practicality to the initiative. Jamali announced Pakistan’s willingness to expand bilateral trade within the framework of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, to restore bilateral civil aviation contacts and restore diplomatic relations at the level of high commissioners. Each one of these offers was a repetition of what India had offered Pakistan in order to restore normalcy in bilateral relations last October and November, as India decided to pull back its armed forces from its forward deployment positions.
Both countries have now designated high commissioners to each other’s capitals. Shiv Shanker Menon, our ambassador to China, is to proceed to Islamabad, and Aziz Ahmed Khan, former Pakistani ambassador to the taliban government in Afghanistan and now a spokesman of the Pakistan foreign office, have been designated high commissioners.
Being personally acquainted with both these diplomats, I am clear that the choice has been not only appropriate but careful and measured. These are individuals of temperament who will be nodal points in structuring bilateral relations at this sensitive and critical juncture. Both are sober, non-political and practical officers. Knowledgeable about the foreign policies of their countries, and firmly committed to their national interests, they are known for their patience, tact and practical approach in negotiations.
It was obvious that there was some differences of opinion within the Pakistani establishment as to who should come as the Pakistan high commissioner. The names mentioned were Maleeha Lodhi and Riaz Ahmed Khan. Lodhi and Riaz Ahmed Khan have a record of assertive anti-Indianism in recent years. Jamali, in fact, publicly announced Riaz Ahmed Khan’s name, which was later contradicted by the government of Pakistan. Musharraf’s final choice is Aziz Ahmed Khan, who is no less firm about Pakistani policies. But he has two advantages. He has served in New Delhi as deputy high commissioner and director general, south Asia, in the Pakistan foreign office. Secondly, he is not confrontationist in his style of diplomacy when compared to some of his predecessors in New Delhi.
So one can draw the conclusion that Pakistan wants the process of dialogue to continue without controversies in its initial stages.
India has responded to the suggestion about re-activating trade relations with a sense of detachment, stating that these relations can evolve, depending on Pakistan’s attitudes, for the present. It is obvious that Pakistan still has reticences about full-scale trade relations. The bus service between Lahore and Amritsar has been restored but neither side has yet given clear indications about restoring the train services — the Samjhauta Express.
As far as restoring civil aviation links go, Pakistan has only agreed to restoration of flights between India and Pakistan (perhaps Delhi-Lahore, Delhi-Karachi and Bombay-Karachi). While India has suggested in addition the restoring of overflight facilities, Pakistan is procrastinating over a decision on the matter. Could it be that Pakistan wants to exploit the fact that lack of overflight facilities costs India much more than it does Pakistan — and it is an argument of Pakistanis that after all it was India which started this punitive action.
Track-II diplomacy has been revived as a result of non-governmental initiatives. A Pakistani parliamentary delegation visited India in May. Indian members of parliament and academics have visited Pakistan over the last six weeks. Pugwash organized a conference on south Asian security, Indo-Pakistan relations and the Kashmir issue, in Geneva in the middle of May. There were representatives from the thinktanks of India and Pakistan, as well as some Western academics at this conference. Interestingly, the Pakistan delegation was a high level one with the former foreign minister, Abdul Sattar, as participant.
More interesting was the presence of serving officers from the Pakistani army and the Pakistan foreign office at this conference. Pakistan’s high commissioner-designate to India, Aziz Ahmed Khan, was at this conference. It is noteworthy that in these Track II discussions, the Kashmir problem was not projected head on as a controversial issue. The approach was to acknowledge the importance of the issue and to discuss possible options for a solution. Perhaps a good sign; though one did not see any dilution of the basic stance on Jammu and Kashmir, on the part of India and Pakistan, even at these non-official discussions.
Prospects of meaningful and substantive moves towards resolving India-Pakistan disputes have been put in doubt in a statement made by Musharraf in the last week of May that whenever India-Pakistan summit takes place, it will be between Jamali and Vajpayee. The rationale given by Musharraf is that he does not want to be a roadblock in negotiations. As far as India’s perceptions go, this detachment from talks by Musharraf indicates his keeping his options open about pulling back from the negotiations and disowning Jamali as Junejo was disowned by General Zia-ul-Haq.
Everybody knows that Musharraf is the ultimate deciding authority in Pakistan. In fact, it is he who should have called Vajpayee and not Jamali. As long as Musharraf remains executive president, his pretending to delegate the negotiating authority to Jamali to establish Pakistan’s democratic credentials, is at best a cosmetic gesture and at worst it only increases India’s apprehensions about Musharraf’s real intentions.
Vajpayee in his discussions with the US deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage, with the German chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, and with the US president, George Bush, has underlined that a dialogue can move on to substantive issues when Pakistan stops supporting cross-border terrorism. Infiltration and violence continue in Jammu and Kashmir. Externally sponsored separatist militants are politically becoming incrementally defensive with the growing credibility of the Mufti government supported by the Congress.
The Hurriyat is in disarray, which may make the jihadis across the border more desperate. There is a need to be alert about this, as they can disrupt the process of a dialogue. Bush promised to speak to Musharraf when the latter visits Washington in June to be more purposeful in stopping cross-border terrorism. He gave this assurance to Vajpayee at St. Petersburg on May 31. Anticipating pressure from the US, Musharraf has taken some concrete steps to curb jihadis in his country. The Jamait-e-Islami has expelled the Hizbul Mujaheddin from its offices. The Jaish-e-Mohammed and the Lashkar-e-Toiba have been subjected to official restraint over the last three weeks. Militants like Masood Azhar have been prevented from their public activities. One hopes that this is the beginning of Pakistan dissociating itself from these terrorist organizations, though one is not very optimistic.
There are indications that middle level officials from both countries may commence discussions on the agenda for official level dialogue. Meanwhile, some further steps to buttress the process could be taken by both the governments. Full civil aviation facilities should be restored, the train service between the two countries should be revived, sports and cultural contacts could be re-initiated. The hot lines between the prime ministers, the foreign secretaries and the directors-general, military operations, could be fully re-activated. The confidence building measures agreed upon between 1989 and 1996 should be brought back into operation. Most important, both parties could take the major decision of convening the joint experts group on nuclear risk reduction, agreed upon in Lahore in February 1999.
The path ahead will have hurdles, will have disruptions. India and Pakistan should make haste slowly but in the interim should not hesitate to take substantive steps to underpin the process of a dialogue.