India: Vajpayee’s Pakistan Initiative – Third Time Lucky?

2003

Rakesh Ahuja

During his visit to Kashmir in April, Prime Minister Vajpayee unexpectedly offered a 'hand of friendship' to Pakistan. Two weeks later, he told Parliament that he was ready to make a 'third and final attempt' to resolve their differences in 'decisive negotiations'. This was a startling break in the 16-month stalemate following the attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001. India has since bluntly rebuffed bilateral dialogue until militant infiltration into Kashmir ceases, stressing that it has as much right to take preventive measures against terrorism as has the US or Israel.

Pakistan responded to Vajpayee's initiative with alacrity. Within hours, Prime Minister Jamali invited Vajpayee to visit Islamabad. The minuet has since continued: upgraded diplomatic relations; transport links renewed; straying citizens released; aviation and sporting links and inter-Ministerial trade contacts under discussion.

This is the third attempt in four years by the two nations to settle their debilitating differences. The benign atmosphere during Vajpayee’s visit to Pakistan in 1999 shattered on the slopes of Kargil. The 2001 Summit in Agra ended on a sour note as savvy Musharraf trumped Vajpayee in a public relations exercise and refused to budge on ‘Kashmir first’ policy.

Vajpayee has always staked his personal and political legacy on obtaining India’s recognition as a world power. His policies on nuclear capability and economic reforms are indicative of this aspiration. But one pre-condition for achieving a credible voice in international affairs has eluded him – the failure to break the Kashmir impasse, which has been draining India’s image in international affairs for years. Now 78, Vajpayee appears intent on using his domestic political pre-eminence to push the peace process (and to again lead the BJP to victory in 2004).

Of course, Vajpayee’s concession comes at a time when geo-political and economic constellations have probably never been as inimical to Pakistan’s interests as now. The country’s political and social fabric is facing unprecedented stresses and strains. Its economy is staying afloat largely because of American debt forgiveness, massive aid and its imprimaturs for huge loans from IMF and the World Bank. This has a price.

Musharraf is caught in an unenviable vice between supporting America’s war against terrorists and nurturing 'freedom fighters' in Kashmir. The distinction between the two is blurring as the US continues to add to the list of proscribed terrorist organisations, narrowing Pakistan’s options against home and foreign grown Islamic militants. Recent elections in Indian-held Kashmir, adjudged largely free and fair by Western Governments, have not helped its case. The Pakistani lobby in the West is losing its traction.

Pakistan has responded by advocating a step-by-step process. This is a remarkable turnaround from its unwavering position of holding other bilateral disputes hostage to the 'core issue of Kashmir'. It may now be prepared to go down the path of incremental confidence building measures (CBMs). This would be a courageous decision against the backdrop of domestic fissures, particularly in the military/intelligence establishment, regarding the US-Pakistan alliance against terrorism.

A more amenable set of circumstances for rapprochement has not existed since 1972. Each has made a major concession. Moreover, Vajpayee’s (pregnant with meaning) comment that 'serious compromises' are required is noteworthy. It may point to long simmering speculation that converting the Line of Control into an international border is the most viable resolution of the Kashmir dispute. Observers have noted with surprise a recent CIA map labelling the region east of the Line of Control as the 'Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir' and the region to its west as 'Pakistan-controlled areas of Kashmir'. Is this a delphic sign of the solution to come?

WATCHPOINT: Among non-security CBMs, progress on bilateral trade liberalisation will be the litmus test of willingness to move the process forward.

 

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