The importance of taking a small step

The importance of taking a small step
by H.K. Dua

P.V. Narasimha Rao, like an ancient Chinese philosopher, tended to believe that not doing anything can be an effective policy of the state to tackle a chronic problem.

This kind of policy to sort out what afflicts relations between India and Pakistan can only be self-defeating. The subcontinent has gone through tensions, periodic wars and destruction. One-fifth of humanity in this part of the world simply cannot afford to continue to live in unending distrust and hatred that by their very nature breed conflict.

Often it has been seen in history that every war could have been avoided and the world spared of much misery if only some more effort had been made to douse the prevailing passions.

The grisly events of 26/11 were certainly traumatic for India and it had to call off the dialogue with Pakistan. The indignant public reaction and New Delhi’s decision to immediately call off all talks with Pakistan was natural and understandable.

The 26/11 shock indeed caused a deep wound in India’s psyche. In running the affairs of a nation decisions and policies, however, have their life-span beyond which they get into a cycle of diminishing returns. Statesmanship and adept handling of diplomacy require not sticking to rigid positions but at times searching for new options suitable for the time and the country’s future needs. Wisely considered flexibility can be of enormous help at decision-making levels.

Viewed in this perspective, the decision to begin foreign secretary- level talks by month-end speaks for the recognition of foreign policy requirements and promoting enlightened self-interest in a fast-changing world. Statesmanship also requires fashioning new policies to advance national interest.

Mrs Nirupama Rao’s proposed meeting with Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir later this month may not be a single-round event meant to resolve all issues between the two nations caught in a great divide. An effort has to be made for a new beginning, even if it turns out to be exploratory in nature. It will be worth it if the two foreign secretaries succeed in bringing about a sort of climate change in the subcontinent’s frozen attitudes.

Some people in India are sceptical of the initiative it has taken on the ground that Pakistan has not given up its rigid position on most questions that have prevented the two countries from becoming friends. They are well-meaning persons, but they have not come out with any workable alternative to the new initiative to start talks with Pakistan. The no-dialogue stand, necessary after 26/11, has practically run its course. Also, it will be incorrect to view that offering talks amounts to giving a concession to Pakistan. Talks do not mean giving up the Indian position on any major issue; they are aimed at resolving differences.

It is possible the two foreign secretaries will work out their own agenda for their meeting. The talks are being held at India’s initiative and on Indian terms. Curbing terrorism and dismantling the terror infrastructure by Pakistan remains on India’s catalogue of demands. Pakistan can also raise issues of its convenience. By all means, tackling issues across the table is better than resorting to invectives and rhetoric that fan greater distrust and foul up the entire atmosphere.

Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s shrill noises on TV channels were in contrast to what he normally says in diplomatic interactions. Prime Minister Gilani has also the tendency to score brownie points in public statements that hardly help.

New Delhi’s decision to offer talks has come after some thought. The two foreign secretaries have met in New York. A quiet dialogue has also been going on between the Prime Minister’s special envoy, Mr Satinder Lambah, and his counterpart, Mr Riaz Mohd. Khan, who has taken over from Mr Tariq Aziz.

General Pervez Musharraf, in his times, and Dr Manmohan Singh had met more than once and had worked out some common areas of convergence which included, among other things, the Indian position that a settlement will not involve any exchange of territory and changes in international borders. The idea was to make the Line of Control between the two Kashmirs irrelevant and allow the people on both sides of the divide to build economic and cultural ties. The new atmosphere thus created could lead to a reduction of forces on both sides.

Whether the two foreign secretaries and the two interlocutors — Mr Lambah and Mr Riaz Mohd Khan — in their occasional secret contacts pick up the thread from where it had got snapped remains to be seen. But it can be assumed that what has been agreed upon will not necessarily be thrown off the board.

Mr Qureshi’s remarks earlier this week that he did not know about what had been agreed upon earlier was rebutted by an influential commentator of Pakistan, Mr Mushahid Hussain, who told Karan Thapar on CNBC TV 18 on Monday that Mr Qureshi was ignorant of what had been worked out, proving that often in a government, certainly in Pakistan, the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing.

Subcontinental rhetoric apart, Mrs Nirupama Rao and Mr Salman Bashir will have a serious task on their plate. Their effort may be a very small step, considering how formidable the challenge is, but it is worth making a beginning. Not taking that step also cannot be a viable policy for India and Pakistan if they have to look for durable peace on the subcontinent.