India needs to view its neighbourhood relations, especially with Pakistan, in the context of its ever expanding international role.
Sharm el Sheikh has become shorthand for cardinal diplomatic error. The media has gone to town on the communiqué, endlessly turning it over and trumpeting adverse findings. The ‘strategic community,’ shadowy but vocal, has jumped in, as has the parliamentary opposition. Even usually sober observers have been swayed by the clamour and are inclined to blame the Prime Minister for putting his name to the document. On his return, he was left conspicuously alone, with nobody in the government showing much inclination to stand by him as the criticism mounted. And to rub it in, the statement that raised such a storm here was warmly welcomed in Pakistan.
But is the uproar justified? Did India really lose ground in Sharm el Sheikh and is there any cause for alarm? Condemnation of what came from there has been directed mainly at two features of the joint statement: first, that it contains a mention of Baluchistan, and second, that it de-links dialogue from other bilateral issues. These themes do not feature in earlier communiqués, and perhaps largely for that reason, their inclusion has been castigated as a damaging innovation. But there is no sound basis for such criticism. Take Baluchistan: the joint statement says Pakistan had information on threats in that province, and goes on to state that India is ready to discuss all issues with Pakistan. This is taken to imply that Pakistan has somehow succeeded in smuggling in an oblique reference to Indian complicity in Baluch events. If that were so, it would indeed be serious, but such an interpretation overstretches the facts. In a spirited address to Parliament, the Prime Minister explained his aim: Pakistan has made a frequent grievance of India’s supposed involvement in Baluchistan, and as this is entirely untrue, there is no need for India to look as if it must avoid talking about it. This is a reasonable and confident rationale for the joint statement. But the mere mention of Baluchistan is regarded by some as a blunder and an unwarranted concession. As so often in India-Pakistan affairs, all sorts of implications are attached to relatively straightforward propositions; there is constant second-guessing and excessive analysis, so that we tend to advance further and further into the trees, often losing sight altogether of the wood. After all, the purpose of entering into dialogue is to cover all subjects of concern to both parties, so as to permit a meeting of minds where possible, and, where necessary, to confront and repudiate wrongful accusations.
At Sharm el Sheikh it was also decided not to bracket composite dialogue with action on terrorism. This, too, has received a hostile reception in New Delhi, the more so as it goes against the frequently reiterated Indian position that Pakistan must bring the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks to book before dialogue can resume. What, it is asked, has taken place to permit this apparent softening of stand, and why should such indulgence be shown to the other side. It is true that Pakistan’s response on this crucial matter has been contradictory and uncertain, at times more open than in the past, at other times rhetorical and unfriendly. Clearly Pakistan needs to do much more, and it is not India alone that is urging it on — other members of the international community are also insistent. Yet, taking all factors into account, at Sharm el Sheikh India’s Prime Minister signalled readiness to re-engage in talks. India’s anger and disgust have not dissipated but even so it is time to strengthen diplomatic efforts to advance the country’s purpose. The only available modality is dialogue, which can now usefully be resumed, for to remain indefinitely disengaged would yield little and could mean that opportunity would be lost.
We are now at a stage when meetings in New York are expected shortly between the Foreign Secretaries and the Foreign Ministers. The shadow of Sharm el Sheikh should not hang over these meetings. India’s representatives may be understandably reluctant to undertake significant new initiatives, but it is important, nevertheless, not to get bogged down into merely repeating established nostrums. Mild encouragement can be taken from one or two recent developments. The most eye-catching of these is the attendance by Pakistan’s DG ISI at the iftaar reception of India’s High Commissioner in Islamabad. This appears to have been intended as a gesture of good intent and the DG seems ready to break fresh ground. His willingness to meet his Indian counterpart has been publicly made known. Such a meeting could be an important step and should be encouraged. It may be relevant both to the pursuit of the criminals of the Mumbai attacks and also to the issue of infiltration across the LOC. This last is a perennial matter of bilateral discord and suspicion. Pakistan has given assurances that it has, finally, clamped down on the cross-LOC traffic but reports from J&K suggest otherwise. This is the domain of the security agencies and if the two intelligence chiefs can have a frank discussion on the subject, it could help to clear the air to some extent. They could even consider practical measures on the ground to meet India’s concerns about LOC crossings. In this, the Prime Minister’s dictum ‘trust but verify’ must be the watchword.
Looking further ahead, India needs now to view its neighbourhood relations, especially with Pakistan, in the context of its ever expanding international role. Within the Asian region, the demands of a new security architecture have come under serious consideration. Some strategists have envisaged an Asian Union that would eclipse in size and significance the EU and be a dominant global entity for the 21st century. Sorting out neighbourhood affairs is an essential prelude to the larger international role that India must assume in this changing environment. The serious effort to resolve issues close to home, of which Sharm el Sheikh is one episode, is of a piece with a bold vision for the country’s future.
As post-Sharm el Sheikh reactions have shown, public voices in Parliament, the media, and elsewhere, will not make it easy for the Prime Minister to pursue the course on which he has embarked. Yet he enjoys a wide window of opportunity and is better placed than ever before to find a path through the neighbourhood dilemmas that have so long beset India. The opportunity that exists today has been created through sustained effort during the first term of the UPA government. It must not be lost. Wise and determined leadership will make all the difference at this challenging time.
(The writer is a former Foreign Secretary.)