We have heard of the Oslo summit, the Camp David summit and the London dialogue. Thailand so far did not have any strategic process or meeting named after it or some place in it. But now, that has been addressed with the Chaopraya dialogue, named after the beautiful, active river that flows through Bangkok. This dialogue between India and Pakistan brings together specialists on Kashmir, terrorism, water resources, people-to-people contacts and nuclear confidence-building. If these experts cannot take forward the peace process on the banks of the Chaopraya, they can’t do it anywhere else. The river is actually an architectural marvel—of how an Asian waterway, subject to floods and dry spells, can be tamed, giving it the potential of the Thames in London or the Seine in Paris. As a naval officer and small-boat enthusiast, I find the Chaopraya river-boats a revelation. Extra long, narrow and with a low freeboard, these boats are powered by ordinary truck engines. The propeller is at the end of a long shaft that goes over the side and into the water without piercing the hull, obviating the need for waterproof glands and sealing. So it’s not India alone that has a jugaad. Bangkok’s tuk-tuks, powered by motorcycle engines, are twice as fast as India’s autorickshaws, and they are jugaads too, as are the Chaopraya boats.
The Jabberwock’s Bite
The Pakistanis and Indians are housed in a riverside hotel away from the conference but the bonhomie is similar to what may have happened before 1947. The conference, which brings so many people together in Bangkok, proceeds with courtesy and humour. Each side has plenty of people with views differing widely from those of the establishment and they are a source of much comfort to the other side, who they believe are more reasonable than the government. The Pakistanis are quite appalled by what happened in Mumbai, but draw attention to the number of attacks they are suffering from. Are their terrorists different from our terrorists? Probably they are, but we will never know. But our case is that all terrorists circle back to bite their handlers in the butt one day.
There is one group of experts conspicuously absent, and they are the economists. I am curious to know how Pakistan is actually doing, since it is a long time since we have had access to reliable statistics from Islamabad. A knowledgeable Pakistani tells me that, after correcting for population growth, their GDP is actually contracting. The real power in Pakistan—the army—couldn’t care very much about this for many reasons. Firstly, they are guaranteed a major share of government resources. Secondly, they are getting cheap Chinese stuff from their all-weather friends. Thirdly, they have inveigled the Americans to give them lots of free goodies. And lastly, most of the money-making commercial businesses in Pakistan belong to the army anyway. It’s a revelation to hear that India recently got a big consignment of cement from a Pakistani army cement factory. Well, more power to Pakistani cement!
Both sides make an attempt to discuss the water issue, but no one knows very much about the water management system other than that it works, and that three rivers belong to them and three to us. There is an original contribution from a south Indian observer that the water shortage comes from a common problem—the Punjab farmer on both sides of the border who grows basmati rice when he shouldn’t, gets free electricity when he shouldn’t, and generally wastes water like there is no tomorrow. The real problem appears to be that Pakistan, which had about 20 million people in 1947, now has 170 million and will stabilise only at something like 300 million in 2050. For that many Pakistanis, even all six rivers are inadequate, so the noise from the fundamentalist clergy in Muridke has already begun about alleged “water theft”.
There is another great revelation. Apparently, Rawalpindi—that is, the army, for Islamabad means government—has given up the daft idea of evacuating the Punjab and retreating into the ‘strategic depth’ of Kabul. The strategic depth idea is dead. But what they want from Kabul is the kind of assurance they apparently got from Kabul in the 1965 war with India—that you don’t have to watch your back. Will they get it? It’s not much to do with us, but apparently 90 per cent of Afghans, when asked to identify the dushman, say Pakistan.
Still, the Pakistanis haven’t lost their sense of humour. Here’s one story. Zia-ul-Haq, the fundamentalist president who set off Pakistan’s decline, is driving around Islamabad and sees long queues outside every embassy’s consular offices. He joins one queue to find out why Pakistanis are fleeing. On seeing him joining the queue, the crowd melts away. He asks them, “What’s all this? Why are you leaving the queue?” One bystander tells him the reason: “If you are applying for a visa, we are staying.”