India's positive unilateralism

NEW DELHI Oct. 26. After making a big impression with its offer of a package of confidence-building measures last week to Pakistan, the Government must now be prepared to sustain this initiative irrespective of the nature of Islamabad's reaction.

If Pakistan does respond positively to some of the proposals it should be relatively easy to build on the momentum. But if Pakistan's reaction is essentially negative, India must be in a position to unveil another series of moves. If India's emerging strategy towards Pakistan might be called "positive unilateralism", the core assumption underlying it must be that New Delhi will not take "no" for an answer from Islamabad.

Positive unilateralism is a national strategy that tries to engineer a substantive shift in the difficult ties with another nation over the long term. It avoids exclusive reliance on formal negotiations and bets on unilateral actions that could create better conditions under which traditional negotiations could succeed.

In relation to Pakistan, this would call for both patience on the strategic objectives — end to cross-border terrorism and a normalisation of bilateral relations — and a relentless pursuit of small steps each of which will make at least a small difference to the lives of the people across the border.

The first priority for India is to find ways to implement some of the proposals it had unveiled last week unilaterally. For example, India could unilaterally let senior citizens cross the border on foot.

Economic cooperation is particularly amenable to unilateral action. Instead of continuing to negotiate tariff reductions in a multilateral or bilateral format, India could unilaterally announce greater market access to a range of exportable goods in Pakistan. Can Islamabad say no? Can Pakistan refuse an Indian offer to start negotiations immediately on the issues relating an overland pipeline from Iran to India through its territory?

Can Pakistan say no to immediate talks at the official level on nuclear and military confidence-building measures? If India and Pakistan want to be treated as serious nuclear weapons powers, they need to have a mechanism for continuous consultations on issues relating to military stability. Why should this important issue be tied up to the so-called composite dialogue?

If the Government begins to think creatively, the strategy of positive unilateralism offers a huge number of diplomatic options to retain the political initiative vis-�-vis Pakistan and begin the process of chipping away at the compulsive hostility that dominates the military establishment in Pakistan.

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India's strategy of positive unilateralism could be applied with even greater effectiveness towards Bangladesh. In one of his farewell addresses in Dhaka, the departing Indian High Commissioner, Mani Lal Tripathi, came up with a litany of grievances against the host Government. The list included Dhaka's refusal to cooperate on terrorism and the tendency in Bangladesh to attribute outlandish motives to every Indian action.

India's frustrations in dealing with Bangladesh are real. But the time has come for India stop complaining and start taking decisions that could help change the relationship without expecting immediate reciprocity.

One good example is the recent Indian offer to deliver oil directly to Khulna in western Bangladesh rather than at Chittagong on the far eastern coast. This could help Dhaka save on transportation costs of energy to western Bangladesh. India could even think of bigger and bolder steps that could make huge economic sense to Dhaka.

For example, it could offer to supply oil to Bangladesh without demanding payment in hard currency. The receipts owed by Dhaka to New Delhi could be put in an escrow account that could be used to promote Indian investments and other mutually beneficial projects in Bangladesh. Bangladesh could save on dollar payments to import oil.

More immediately, India is in a position to facilitate Dhaka's exports to India by offering special treatment to Bangladeshi goods and make it easier to narrow the trade gap that is so heavily in New Delhi's favour. The talks on trade related issues last week between the two countries appeared to have gone off reasonably well. What India needs is political intervention at the highest level to give a big push to transform the relations with Dhaka without a reference to the immediate political difficulties.

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When relations between two nations are good, it is relatively easy for them to take unilateral reciprocal actions that continually upgrade the ties. That we have arrived at such a happy "virtuous cycle" in relation to Sri Lanka was visible in the recent visit of the Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Within a few years, the relationship between New Delhi and Colombo has emerged as a very privileged one, based on total trust and a willingness on each side to go more than half way to address the concerns of the other.

It is important, however, to remember that the initial thrust for this change in bilateral relations came from the Sri Lankan side a few years ago. Positive unilateralism from Sri Lanka created the conditions for a restructuring of bilateral relations.

While India's interlocutors in Islamabad and Dhaka are certainly not easy to deal with, the strategy of positive unilateralism offers New Delhi ways of pushing its relationship with these two countries in a different direction. Even if India's unilateral actions do not produce immediate results, the very act of trying by India would have its own positive consequences over the long term.

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