A building block in the SAARC vision

M.J. AKBAR

Caution is not enough. India-Pakistan relations must always be handled with caution, precaution and, if one may coin a phrase, post-caution.

The India-Pakistan relationship is vulnerable to history, geography, ideology, sabotage, uncertainty and miscalculation. Ever since Pakistan launched its first war for Kashmir, within ten weeks of freedom in 1947, the corpse of good intentions has been repeatedly buried in the malignant shroud of warriors. War in all its nuanced dimensions — declared, semi-declared, undeclared — has sent even the well-meaning into the retreat of a fragile status quo.

The ideologies of India and Pakistan are at cross-purposes, if not inimical. Those invested in confrontation litter communications with barely concealed landmines. And uncertainty has always been the father of miscalculation. Legacy issues are fraught with peril. The future is hostage to a strategic ecosystem into which no less a person than a nation’s defence minister can casually drop mention of nuclear weapons. Perhaps there is a justification. A strident war cry is often fed to hawks when the leader sets off in search of a dove.

One cannot fault Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for being careful. The last time he made a bid for amity with India, he lost his job and almost his life to an army coup. His successor, General Pervez Musharraf, attempted, after some sabre-rattling, to sustain the peace process, but lost his nerve at the last minute during the most difficult day in India-Pakistan talks, at the Agra summit. Politics, and Providence, have given Nawaz Sharif a second chance. He has displayed the courage to make another effort. Experience of failure will serve both Islamabad and Delhi well as they search for success.

When the frippery of democratic fencing subsides, the intelligent jury of Indian public opinion will still have a serious question to ask: Is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s outreach shaped by conviction?

For Prime Minister Modi this is the last, but vital, building block in his vision of a resurgent SAARC that can offer prosperity to the impoverished in an environment of shared peace. The foundations were laid on the day he was sworn in, when every SAARC leader was invited to Delhi. Nawaz Sharif must have been a bit bewildered by this initiative, but he seized it. As has happened before, saboteurs intervened, but Narendra Modi was set on his course. Working with sustained pace and unprecedented effort, he strengthened India’s ties with other SAARC nations. His visits to Nepal and Bangladesh will be remembered as turning points. This could hardly have gone unnoticed in Islamabad. That old temptation of ring-fencing India with hostile neighbours was being upturned, replaced by the whisper of “SAARC-minus-one”. There were many advocates in Delhi for this option, arguing that the status quo with Pakistan was a much safer place than yet another encounter with adventure. But India’s Prime Minister was not yet ready to give up on his vision.

Prudence placed one condition: before he could act, he had to be confident about Pakistan’s response. In the last week of January, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar was appointed foreign secretary. In the midst of a harrowing schedule he made a very quiet trip to Islamabad. Obviously, we cannot know what transpired, but you do not have to very intelligent to guess that the ball was back in play.

The Agra summit had collapsed over the definition of terrorism. A consensus on its meaning was obviously crucial. This was achieved. As a consequence, Pakistan has agreed to expedite the trial of those accused of masterminding the Mumbai attack in 2008.

But what brought all pieces together was Prime Minister Modi’s decision to go to Pakistan in 2016 for the SAARC summit. This is what links today’s Ufa talks to the swearing-in ceremony of 2014 and the goal of a new subcontinent, energised by economic growth rather than escalating confrontation. No one in his senses believes that all problems can be solved; but they can be resolved through mutually acceptable mechanisms. There was one that had been crafted out as a follow-up to Agra, and would have been revived if Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had been re-elected in 2004.

Caution is not enough. India-Pakistan relations must always be handled with caution, precaution and, if one may coin a phrase, post-caution. If anything, the last is most vital. Saboteurs may have been temporarily finessed into silence, but they are not dead. A crucial test will lie in border stability. If borders bleed, the environment is poisoned. Both nations recognise this, and meetings have been scheduled at NSA and operational levels to minimise tension and incidents. The big, if unspoken, concern is the threat of high-voltage terrorism with all its destabilizing consequences.

The great strength of this shift towards peace is the enormous support of public opinion in both countries. The people have risen beyond the past, for they know that this is the only way to change the future.

http://www.sunday-guardian.com/analysis/a-building-block-in-the-saarc-vision

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