Time for the Political Leadership to Bite the Bullet

By Tridivesh Singh Maini

Source: auweia's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Soldiers patrol the fenced border in Jammu between India and Pakistan. Guest author Tridivesh Maini argues breakthrough in Indo-Pak relations will require bold leadership. Source: auweia’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Indo-Pak dialogue, which was suspended in the aftermath of tensions across the Line of Control (LOC) in January 2013, was to resume in August 2013, and prime ministers of both countries were to meet in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September. The recent tensions across the LOC have cast a shadow on both. The strong resolution passed in the Pakistan National Assembly earlier this week has not helped the cause of reducing tensions.While the events of the last week are tough to overlook for both sides, especially India, since elections are less than a year away, they must move forward. It is imperative for both New Delhi and Islamabad to avoid jingoistic discourse and ensure that engagement does not stop. To do this both sides need to take some bold steps.

It is unfortunate engagement is again thrown in question because the last two months have witnessed some encouraging developments.

First, India’s external affairs minister, Salman Khurshid met with Sartaj Aziz, advisor to Pakistan’s prime minister on national security and foreign affairs in Brunei on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit. Second, Pakistan prime minister Sharif’s special envoy, Shahryar Khan, also met Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh on July 5. Sharif, who faces numerous domestic security and economic challenges, sent a letter via Khan with warm wishes for the people of India, and also expressed a desire to take the bilateral relationship to new heights. A possible visit for Singh to Pakistan and a meeting between Singh and Sharif in New York were discussed.

Following the events of the last week the atmosphere has changed. To overcome the cycle of antagonism and renewed tension, leaders on both sides must act decisively and responsibly. Sharif needs to send a clear message to the Indian side that he is keen to bring the perpetrators of 26/11 – especially Jamat-ud-Dawah chief Hafiz Mohammad Saeed – to justice. It should be mentioned that Saeed openly spewed venom against India on Eid and even warned of a terrorist attack

Despite making the right noises during his election campaign, Prime Minister Sharif has had to bow down not only to hardliners like Saeed, but also within the establishment of the Pakistan Muslim League (N) (PML-N). On both the recent resolution by the Pakistan National Assembly which castigated India for creating an atmosphere of tension and even on the issue of MFN to India prior to that, the PML-N has not taken a strong stand.

For his part, Singh should not suspend dialogue with Pakistan. The level of engagement can and probably will be slowed down. However, it is imperative that not only does the Indian prime minister meet his Pakistani counterpart, but that he also puts India’s reservations with regard to the recent aggression across the LOC, as well as the vitriolic statements of Hafiz Saeed, on the table. Singh has already caved in enough to the hawks in the Indian establishment on issues such as the visit to Pakistan.

Apart from this, engagement with Pakistan in the economic realm should still move forward, with clear benefits as was evident between 2011 and early 2012. Singh could seek the assistance of business houses from India, as well as governments of border states like Punjab, Rajasthan, Jammu and Kashmir which have an enduring interest in better ties between both countries. Some headway in this sphere would ensure that engagement remains intact and once the election season is over in India, then there may be scope to deal with other contentious issues, such as Sir Creek, Siachen, and the water issue which have been put on the backburner due to LOC tension.

Broadly speaking, Prime Minister Singh should stand his ground and stick his neck out for more creative and meaningful engagement with Pakistan, something he has been committed to perhaps more than any other Indian prime minister. His agenda however, has been sabotaged by hawks in India and elements in Pakistan who are inimical to peace. Prime Minister Sharif too should not kowtow to the military or religious hardliners.

In the long term, both countries need to once again forge an independent relationship, and avoid being obsessed by each others’ relations with other powers. While India needs to keep an eye on its national interest, it should not allow the Beijing-Islamabad relationship to overshadow its ties with Pakistan. Islamabad also should seek to build a strong relationship with New Delhi and recognize that economic linkages with India are more beneficial and sustainable over the long term, than foreign aid and assistance from any external power.

Diplomacy between Indian and Pakistan needs a strong dose of courage, spontaneity, and dynamism. It is imperative that the political leadership of both countries shows some boldness, and does not bank excessively on envoys and back channel diplomacy. Back channel talks are only a starting point for the leadership to build upon. It is time the political leadership seized the initiative and moved from platitudes to substance.

Mr. Tridivesh Singh Maini is a Fellow with The Jindal School of International Affairs, Sonepat, India. The views expressed here are solely those of the author.

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