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Between the line

Can’t afford to fail again
June 02 , 2010


The difference between a statesman and a politician is that the first looks at the future while the second remains stuck in the present. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh shows such a streak at times and jettisons the deadening hand of politics. His statement at his maiden press conference to have “good ties with Pakistan” indicates his determination to come to terms with the sub-continental realities. A hostile neighbour is an irritant which you can ignore only at your peril.

I realize that Indian civil society is, by and large, opposed to having talks with Pakistan because it has allowed its territory to be used by the militants time and again. Islamabad has also admitted it. Should we wait talking to it till it has crushed militancy or should we join the talks so as to help the country in its efforts to eliminate the Taliban who represent militancy?

No other country could be more conscious than Pakistan that its very existence depends on weeding out terrorism and radicals. There was a time when it overlooked such tendencies but doesn’t do now when it realizes that their growth lessens people’s space, both democratically and otherwise.

There is a sea change in Islamabad’s attitude between now and when 26/11 happened. Even though belatedly, it is trying those who perpetrated the attack on Mumbai. Some seven culprits, alleged to have been involved in the 26/11 attack are being tried in the Pakistani courts. Its foreign office said after the death sentence of Ajmal Kasab that “it is important that the culprits are brought to justice.”

Such instances indicate that Islamabad has overcome its initial hesitancy which was perhaps for domestic reasons. It is now bringing to justice those involved in the 26/11 attack. In a country where militancy has got mixed with radicalism, though confined to a segment of society, the government’s moves cannot probably be faster, nor can it do more than what it is doing.

True, America is also putting pressure on Pakistan because six of its nationals died at the hands of the attackers in the 26/11 incident. But the advantage of Washington is that it has been sharing intelligence with Islamabad from the beginning and joining the probe. Such is not the case with New Delhi.

The release by the Pakistan Supreme Court of Lashkar Toibba leader Mohammad Hafiz Sayeed, considered a litmus test for the bona fides of Islamabad, has evoked deep disappointment in India. Its foreign office has also said that Pakistan should be “sensitive” to Indian opinion. Whatever our doubts, we cannot question the credibility of the Supreme Court of Pakistan because after the lawyers’ strike this is one institution which has risen above politics and other considerations.

Probably, Islamabad did not present the case before the court properly. Probably, as is the doubt at this end, that all the seven dossiers sent by New Delhi against Sayeed were not produced in the court. Pakistan’s own intelligence has been tardy on Sayeed. His acquittal has, no doubt, given a new life to the hawks in both India and Pakistan. Yet this is what Home Minister P. Chidambaram should be discussing with his counterpart when they meet in June at Islamabad. A dialogue between the two countries is necessary to pinpoint what is lacking in the evidence. Maybe, they can infuse life into the joint mechanism against terrorism and effort to collect intelligence together.

It must be said to the credit that Dr Manmohan Singh has waded through top opposition from ex-bureaucrats, particularly former foreign secretaries and former High Commissioners to Pakistan. They are as jingoistic as the BJP which is firmly against any talks with Pakistan. Some of the ex-bureaucrats are leading participants in Track II diplomacy. What they and the BJP do not realize, something that Dr Manmohan Singh does is that India cannot attain its “full development potential” unless it has good relations with the neighbouring countries, particularly Pakistan. For example, it is difficult to imagine that New Delhi becoming a permanent member of the Security Council without the support of the neighbouring countries.

Dr Manmohan Singh has correctly diagnosed the disease: mistrust. Since partition the two countries have lived suspecting each other’s intentions. Since the contact has been confined to the top, the emotions and the sentiment of goodwill which exists at the people’s level has been never tapped. The trust deficit cannot be made up—an essential ingredient for better relations—until travel and trade take place on a large scale between the two countries, without the intelligence agencies coming into the picture.

A suggestion that India should talk to the army in Pakistan is retrograde. How can New Delhi hold talks with Pakistan army chief General Parvez Kiyani because it tantamount to recognizing an independent role for the military in a democratic setup. It is the job of the Asif Zardari government to talk to anybody so that everybody is on board. This is how the democratic countries function.

France and Germany faced the same situation of hostility many decades ago. They joined hands through an economic union and common market. India and Pakistan should attempt something like that and extend a similar arrangement to South Asia as France and Germany did by integrating the entire Europe through Economic Union.

Some 38 years ago, when I broached the idea with the then Pakistan Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, he said: “Today we are basically producers of primary commodities and your industrial progress has been better than ours. We have also had some industrial progress but we have not reached that standard of industrial development where there can be a grand collaboration in industry because these things are very difficult to arrange and even Europe is finding it difficult regarding agriculture commodities.”

Pakistan has developed into a great extent since then. But experts can find out how much burden India should bear in terms of excise and tax so that its commodities from Pakistan sell at par with those produced in India. Subsequently, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives can be brought in. They are less developed and would have to heighten the wall of tariffs when they import goods from countries other than India and Pakistan. Yet the most important thing is the normalcy between India and Pakistan. The SAARC countries have often complained that they suffer because of confrontation between the two.

Hawks—and many in the media—in both the countries might do their best to sabotage the talks between the Home Ministers and the Foreign Ministers of India and Pakistan, scheduled for next month. Patience and a sense of accommodation need to be exhibited by either side. We cannot afford to fail this time.

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