August 08, 2020
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A Squandered Opportunity

The Gujral-Sharif normalisation initiative is derailed by hawks

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A Squandered Opportunity
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To people in India and Pakistan, prime ministers trying to normalise ties look endlessly funny. In India, prime minister I.K. Gujral's dovish posturing towards Pakistan looked ridiculous because he was too weak to decide anything. In Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif looked comic thwacking Gujral heavily on the back at the Male SAARC summit in May. Statesmanship always goes against the grain and looks naive. Experts see it as a sellout and write convincing theses in favour of maintaining the status quo.

Gujral's gesture of appearing friendly unleashed all sorts of expectations in Pakistan. Dailies did photofeatures on his ancestral home in Jhelum, old Gujral cronies came out of nooks and crannies to praise his father and the open house he kept. The hawks got worried that public warmth could affect state policy. Columnists were made to head off the pro-India wave by linking Gujral's gesture to a Kashmir solution in Pakistan's favour.

Over Sharif's head, the policy of not accepting a solution to Siachen as a confidenceing measure was enforced and he called to the ISI headquarters and rinsed of all normalising thoughts.

After Male, the foreign secretaries' talks were watched closely: in India, to see if Gujral was getting soft on J&K; in Pakistan, to see if he would deliver on it. In fact, he had promised nothing. As foreign minister in 1996, he had solved the Ganges water dispute with Bangladesh; he also made concessions to Nepal on Mahakali treaty. The Gujral doctrine, based on "our dealings with neighbours without insisting on reciprocity", had carefully left Pakistan out. It had been interpreted in Pakistan as a political strategy to isolate it in South Asia.

As a weak PM, Gujral covered his flanks at home by saying Kashmir was not negotiable. But his policy towards Pakistan never allayed the sceptics. The Prithvi was bared and rubbed as the great Indian phallic symbol to tell Pakistan where to go. Cross-border bombardment broke past records along the ceasefire line, till the normalisation thesis looked like a big South Asian joke.

While Sharif stuck to his normalisation guns, public opinion swung against India. His claim that he had vowed to normalise with India before the 1997 elections was rebutted by his party saying he hadn't put it in the election manifesto. The opposition said he had received instructions from Washington to make up with India, which gibed with the general establishment theory that the Americans wanted Pakistan to become a tributary of India. The religious parties attacked him in the hope that he might be top-

pled by the establishment because of his India blunder. The three rounds of foreign secretaries' talks have broken down, India has wiggled out of discussing Kashmir within the year, and Gujral now says it is not in the power of the two premiers to solve the problem. Sharif has reverted to the routine task of raising the question at international forums, riling India and bringing out more strongly the Monroe doctrine syndrome in New Delhi's thinking. In Lahore, the business leaders advocating trade with India have been replaced in the Chamber of Commerce and Industry with hawks who fulminate over Kashmir.

Only foreigners favour Indo-Pak bilateral talks. New Delhi and Islamabad fear the US as it seems to push the infamous third option on Kashmir. Pakistan's politicians say America wants to grab Kashmir for itself to challenge China. They are embarrassed when Mulayam Yadav says the same thing, vowing friendship with China. In Pakistan, China is supposed to be a security guarantee against India.The irony is crushing.

Invisibly, the official bilateral trade has gone from 40 items under General Zia to over 600 items today. Terms of trade have forced Pakistan to buy more and from India. Economists point to largescale smuggling and recommend opening of trade which all the prime ministers have privately endorsed but publicly rejected. International pressure for free trade is relentless on Pakistan; international pressure on India for bilateral talks on all disputes is being rejected by India. If Pakistan allows trade, its maximalist stand on Kashmir gets watered down; if India starts talking on it is faced with listening to new modalities it doesn't like. The governments in India and Pakistan feel safe in being uncreative.

Track-two dialogues have withered after being penetrated by officially backed hawks set on duplicating the official deadlock.The Gujral doctrine too is dying. The Ganges treaty is being criticised in India for giving away too much to Bangladesh. Indians make fun of Gujral's antics in Nepal. In Pakistan the normalisation thesis has been torn to bits. Gujral is gone and may not come back courtesy another hung parliament. If the BJP comes to power next year, its claim that Muslims live happily under its state governments and Pakistan makes peace easily with like-minded hawks in New Delhi may prove untenable.

A great opportunity has been lost. Two prime ministers have been dubbed fools for trying something that no one really wanted. Statesmanship is doing precisely what no one wants but what is wise and permanent. In India and Pakistan, there are very few people who care for wisdom and permanent solutions.

(The writer is editor of The Friday Times, Lahore.)

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