Waiting for peace The dialogue has gone into slow motion

Editor’s Column
Waiting for peace
The dialogue has gone into slow motion
by H.K. Dua

It is official now: The dialogue between India and Pakistan to bring about durable peace on the subcontinent has slowed down.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh admitted as much when he met the women journalists’ corps at 7 Race Course Road on Thursday. “It is not because of us, but because of the situation in Pakistan,” he said, and not without some concern.

The Prime Minister may have been asked the question in the context of what has been happening in Islamabad’s Lal Masjid during the last four days, but apparently Dr Manmohan Singh had a longer time-frame in mind. In effect, the India-Pakistan dialogue got into slow motion much before the Lal Masjid standoff between President Musharraf’s men in khaki and the extremists who made the mosque a sanctuary for their mischief.

The situation in Pakistan has privately been cited as a factor in the slow-paced dialogue by many influential people in South Block for over a year by now – and more so after the lawyers’ agitation which, during the last four months, spread to most cities in Pakistan, surprising not only President Musharraf, but also South Block mandarins.

Dr Manmohan Singh has said in the past that he can do business with President Musharraf and there is no evidence that he has changed his view. And he told the journalists that Pakistan was faced with a difficult situation and “we don’t want to complicate matters; I don’t want to judge things hastily”. Apparently, he believes that President Musharraf will be able to come out of his present difficulties.

Dr Manmohan Singh is not given to making off-the-cuff comments that might cause offence to friends, and even foes. But there are in South Block people who believe that President Musharraf is keen on making peace with India but they ask whether he is feeling secure and comfortable with the emerging political situation in his country. Some of them tend to think that President Musharraf, even if he is sincere and willing to make a bid for peace with India, may not be feeling strong enough to travel far on the peace track.

Actually, neither President Musharraf, nor Dr Manmohan Singh, is in a position to move fast and settle for peace in the subcontinent. The political situation in the two countries does not allow them to take major initiatives.

President Musharraf may be wishing for peace hoping that he could make history in giving Pakistan a chance to experiment with friendship with its eastern neighbour. But he has run into a bad patch which does not permit him to depart from settled policies and attitudes that have informed Pakistan’s relations with India over the years.

The lawyers’ agitation, which began with the President’s thoughtless sacking of the Supreme Court Chief Justice, brought out the latent disillusionment of the educated middle class with his regime and rekindled its desire for the restoration of a democratic setup in Pakistan.

The lawyers and their supporters in the civil society have not demanded calling off the peace dialogue with India, but the challenge the agitation is posing to the President’s authority is going to keep him engaged in tackling the mounting dissent at home. That Corps Commanders had to come out with a statement in support of the President shows how weak he must have felt last month when the lawyers’ agitation was at its peak.

The President’s plans to contest for another term and the controversy about whether he should remain the Chief of Army Staff or just be a President in civies will leave him little scope for pursuing peace with India.

In any case, in an election year it is always difficult for rulers to sell peace, which often requires policy adjustments, changing frozen attitudes and some give and take.

On the other hand, India also cannot walk fast on the peace track for its own reasons. Dr Manmohan Singh has completed three years in office and in another two years, if not earlier, the country will be going in for parliamentary elections. He too cannot take major initiatives, involving give and take, lest Kashmir should become an election issue, costing the Congress power at the Centre.

At his meeting with the journalists, the Prime Minister has only reiterated what he has said often during the last three years that he had “no mandate or agenda, for redrawing the boundaries”. And that for both President Musharraf and him the common challenge was to make borders irrelevant. “We took time, but we have come to an understanding”, he said. Cautious as he generally is, he would not elaborate.

This is mainly because the two representatives of President Musharraf and Prime Minister – Messrs Tariq Aziz and Satinder Lamba – have yet to tackle many a problem in the negotiations they have been conducting during the last couple of years away from the public glare. Also, explaining details could not only create difficulties in further negotiations, but also generate political resistance at home for both leaders. As such, both are finding virtue in silence on Kashmir.

Neither has cared to define what irrelevance of borders means. The concept has deliberately been kept vague and as it is it can have many ramifications.

By agreeing to making borders irrelevant in Kashmir, the two leaders are, without spelling out, trying to avoid an exchange of territory, and the redrawing of boundaries and also skirting problems concerning conflicting claims of sovereignty over Kashmir. In other words, a give-and-take solution is sought to be avoided to make it easy for the two leaders to sell a possible bilateral settlement to their audiences at home.

However, even vague concepts can cause problems in selling them to critics who are one too many in both countries. President Musharraf will have to convince the fundamentalists who are already accusing him of towing the US line like a faithful; and a deal with India over Kashmir might be anathema to the extremists. Political parties like the Pakistan People’s Party and Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League, even if they profess peace with India, will begin sniping at the General – may be for seeking revenge for much he has done to them over the years.

Dr Manmohan Singh will have his own problems in selling to the BJP, which is fond of using such phrases as “a sellout” whenever the government made any overture to Pakistan during the last three years. Under the circumstances, Dr Manmohan Singh might think that it is better to tread with caution in dealing with Pakistan than hand over the BJP an election issue. He knows that even Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee had faced problems with his party when he talked peace with Pakistan.

All this means that a peace settlement between India and Pakistan may not come about until after President Musharraf regains a predominant position in Pakistan after re-election as President, and after parliamentary polls in India in 2009. And elections can throw up surprises and uncertain governments.

It is indeed a pity the subcontinent has to wait at least for another two years for peace the people on both sides of the divide keenly want.