Sat, 21 Feb 2004

Road map offers risk, but also rewards

M B Naqvi Inter Press Service Karachi, Pakistan

As was widely expected, the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan succeeded Wednesday in drawing up a road map for what is being described as "composite dialogue" between the two estranged neighbors.

It is a fairly tight schedule that is to culminate in a foreign ministers' meeting in August after the expert-level talks are concluded. These negotiations will not actually start until after India's general election, expected in the next few months, is out of the way.

The two sides have revived the format of talks that had been adopted in 1997.

It identified eight, in fact nine, subjects that will be discussed at various levels. Six expert committees will discuss specific differences while two subjects -- disputed Kashmir and peace and security -- have been reserved for the two foreign secretaries' own level of discussions.

A special experts-level committee or subcommittee will examine the nuclear rivalry to see how popular anxieties on the subject can be reduced.

Two facts are known: First, the two countries reached a memorandum on nuclear risk reduction in February 1999 during Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's visit to the Pakistani city of Lahore -- a memo that has remained a dead letter.

Second, Pakistan has this time suggested a fresh scheme of nuclear confidence-building measures, titled a Nuclear Restraint Regime.

Other subjects that are to be discussed at varying bureaucratic levels cover the whole range of accumulated differences between Pakistan and India. They are the Siachin glacier, terrorism and narcotics, Wuller Barrage, Sir Greek, economic and commercial cooperation and cultural exchanges.

Some of these subjects, given a modicum of goodwill and good sense, can be quite easily resolved. Indeed one of them -- Siachin -- was actually agreed to and the agreement was initialed by two countries' heads of foreign office in 1990. But the Indian government, fearing a popular backlash, killed it.

That agreement can be brought down from the shelf, dusted and signed without further negotiations because it was geographically the only solution that will benefit both sides equally.

Most other subjects are technical in nature and can be resolved with political will. Only four subjects will need a good deal of negotiations and a lot of political will and firm determination. Kashmir heads this list.

But it is simultaneously a most complex and an easy issue to solve: Complex because of the history of three and one half wars fought over it and because all negotiations have always failed.

But if it is looked at from the viewpoint of fulfilling the desires of the people of the disputed once-princely state and if both the larger countries of South Asia want to get on with the pursuit of economic development and ensure ampler enjoyment of human rights of all concerned, it will not be too difficult to resolve.

Historically, the solution of the three other subjects -- economic cooperation, cultural exchanges and peace and security (which includes nuclear risk reduction), was linked to solution of Kashmir problem.

Pakistan until December maintained that no progress can be made on these subjects until the Kashmir issue is satisfactorily resolved. But now, it has agreed to proceed simultaneously on all issues.

Even so, Pakistani officials frequently relapse into the old kneejerk reaction of "no progress in any field until India satisfies in some fashion on Kashmir".

A notable change occurred in December when, as a result of U.S. good offices -- "facilitation", as it has been termed so as not to offend Indian sensibilities and Pakistanis' hope of limiting the damage from the proliferation of nuclear materials that took place through an international black market -- Islamabad agreed to offer a unilateral and indefinite ceasefire in the Kashmir insurgency.

It also ceased to insist on Kashmir being recognized as the core issue that had to be taken up first -- before any other matter can be discussed. Pakistan also indicated its change in attitude by agreeing to free trade in the framework of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in January.

So long as U.S. "facilitation" continues and other pressures go on impinging on Pakistan, there are reasons to hope that maybe, just maybe, these nuclear rivals might be able to compose their differences.

Hitherto the momentum of their Cold War has not quite ended. Pakistan's religious right, Musharraf's own constituency of the army and even the secular right looks askance at the military-run "democracy" for defaming and using Abdul Qadeer Khan, the country's Father of the Bomb who admitted to selling nuclear technology to Iran and Libya, as a scapegoat.

Even so, Musharraf is expected to scrape through if Washington goes on helping him.

Pakistan will readily sign up on trade and economic cooperation, though it has so far resisted all arguments that freer Indo-Pakistan trade will be beneficial to it.

In peace and security -- including the dangers from the still intensifying arms race -- it has always been linked with Kashmir: Without a Kashmir solution, various arms races are sure to go on, although both sides concede that this dispute has no military solution.

As for cultural exchanges, especially large-scale people-to- people contacts through easy travel, neither side really wants them. Ruling elites in both countries have politically thrived on shrill rhetoric against each other. All they can be expected to do is to ostentatiously organize cultural troupes and delegations to the other country -- and that will be trumpeted as "cultural exchanges".

Given the reasons for change in Pakistan's stance, it is likely to remain in a reactive mode. Only if Indians take a bolder and more proactive stance on people-to-people contacts will there be any real advance.

It is a sign of maturity on both sides that most of the dialogue will take place after the Indian polls. A lot rides on the result, of course.

But auguries are good in one vital respect: A victory by the opposition alliance over the ruling National Democratic Alliance coalition will not materially change India's policy vis-a-vis Pakistan, though there probably will be nuances of change in favor of closer cultural exchanges and perhaps a shade stronger stance on Kashmir.