Pak-India Peace Process: More Symbolic than real
19 June, 2006
By Prof. Khalid Mahmud
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was reported have put off his proposed visit to Pakistan. On relations with Pakistan the soft-spoken technocrat furred politician has been rather elusive. Unlike his predecessor Atal Bihari Vajpayee, rhetoric is not his cup of tea, nor is bullying ala L. K. Advani. So he rarely goes for public speaking and whatever statements he is required to make from time to time are a carefully-worded exposition of official policy. Thus there is little chance of his getting carried away by impulsive argumentation. But his being a man of few words is perhaps not the only reason why he has not been as vocal as an Indian prime minister is expected on matters related to Pakistan-India ties, in particular the issues being discussed under the composite dialogue.
Manmohan Singh is not a free agent, some have been saying. He is prime minister not in his 'own right but because of Sonia Gandhi's tactical decision to refuse the job. And he was handpicked by the Congress boss because he was in no way a potential threat to her political authority. Manmohan Singh not even a member of the Lok Sabha (the only time he took a chance to contest polls from New Delhi in 1999 he was defeated), he neither has a popular support-base, nor a high standing in the Congress hierarchy. The Congress government, it is said, is being run by parallel power-centres, and the one being operated from 7-Race Course road (where Sonia holds the court) is the most decisive. However, it would be wrong to assume that Manmohan Singh is a mere surrogate who has to secure Sonia's approval for any major decision. Sonia Gandhi has been wise enough to let the government function autonomously without any interference from her in day to day matters. An issue like relations with Pakistan, Kashmir in particular, is obviously an area of exceptional decision making.
No matter who has the crucial vote in the Congress establishment, New Delhi's strategy to deal with Pakistan at a given time is decided in principle by the party high command guided by its 'strategic design' and worked out by old timers steeped in the Congress culture. If Parnab Mukherjee says we cannot pullout troops from Siachen because we don't trust the Pakistan army it doesn't matter if Manmohan Singh wished to make Siachen a 'mountain of peace'. Thus the Indian prime minister is under the circumstances a carrier of the Congress policy who only has the jurisdiction to manoeuvre within the parameters of 'give and take' approved by the Congress establishment. Thus one may well be tempted to conclude, the less he speaks about Pakistan the better it would be for his reputation and credibility.
Observers in Pakistan have been somewhat intrigued by Manmohan Singh: low-key response to initiatives from Islamabad for a meaningful dialogue on Kashmir. The 'composite dialogue', according to critics, is on its death bed because the Indians have shown no desire to address the Kashmir question. Ironically what the political pundits believed was sure to break the ice in New Delhi and stir the Indians into some kind of positive response was the proposal for 'demilitarisation and self-governance of Kashmir. But the trick did not produce the desired result. New Delhi was not excited at all about the prospect of discussing a formula which did not require the Indians to give up their sovereignty over any part of Kashmir or secede any part of their territory Islamabad may have by now become sick and tired of floating compromise proposals, as it has virtually been banging its head against a stone wall.
Manmohan Singh had the dubious distinction of formally ruling out demilitarisation of Kashmir as an option for negotiations. In an All Parties Kashmir conference held in Srinagar towards the end of last month he said the question of withdrawing any troops from Kashmir did not arise as long as militant actions did not stop. Had he said we would consider the proposal if there was an across the board accord on ending violence, or use of force in Kashmir he would have left the door open for the dialogue to move forward. In another Kashmir Conference held earlier in New Delhi, the APHC leaders led by Mir Waiz Umar Farooq had welcomed the Indian prime minister initiative for talking to Kashmiri leaders, and hoped a new round of talks between them would take up substantive issues leading to a Kashmir solution.
Nothing of the sort happened at Srinagar. On the contrary the APHC leaders were so downcast on account of New Delhi's refusal to treat the status of Jammu and Kashmir as dispute which needed to be addressed that they decided to boycott the conference and Manmohan Singh had to talk to the brand of Kashmiri leaders who are willing to play ball with New Delhi's 'atoot ung' design. Explaining the reason for staying away from New Delhi sponsored Kashmir conference, Mir Waiz Umar Farooq was candid and matter of fact. There has to be a precise agenda for talks, he said. Enough is enough was the message brought home by the Hurriyat leader who appeared to have been terribly annoyed with New Delhi's wilful attempts to sidetrack the real issue and take the Kashmiri leadership for a ride by organising sham Kashmir conferences to discuss trivial matters.
Until the final act of 'back to square one' in throwing allegations of sponsoring terrorism from across the border as the Indian National Security Adviser saw a Pakistani hand behind recent explosion following a number of people in some Indian cities, including the Hindu holy city of Benaras, the traditional war of words between the two countries was rather low key. Things seem to be hotting up fast, and one wouldn't be surprised if Islamabad which has hitherto been very discreet in alleging an Indian hand in acts of subversion, may be prompted to highlight the Indian design in Afghanistan and say it more forcefully than it has done before that India's Kabul-connection is being used to channelise funds and arms to miscreants in Balochistan. Needless to say escalation in war of words would be inversely related to the scale of popular goodwill and the pace of confidence-building measures.
Peacemakers had pinned hopes in the possibility of an accord on Siachen. The critics believed this would a significant breakthrough in the peace process, to be more exact in the composite dialogue exercise. Expectations rose high as speculation went around that the two sides had reached an understanding in principle and it was now only a question of working out the modalities of troops redeployment. Reinforcing optimism was another view that since the Indians were not prepared to budge from their stance on Kashmir, they may be inclined to settle for a compromise deal on Siachen so as to establish their honourable intention for negotiated settlements and also give a short in the arm to the deadlocked composite dialogue. The anti-climax of talks on Siachen has been quite demoralising for all these who still saw a ray of hope in the exercise which has been widely seen as a process of diminishing returns.
If Manmohan Singh has under the circumstance decided against visiting Pakistan, it is understandable. He could have, as some observers suggested, brought to Pakistan the good news of an accord on Siachen. For whatever reason the opportunity has been wasted. And the composite dialogue is on the urge of becoming irrelevant. It is therefore by no means as appropriate moment for the Indian prime minister to sell goodwill, peace and friendship to the people of Pakistan, more so if he is also required to harden his tone.