July 05, 2020
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Lahore Balance-Sheet

There's a sense of relief about the decade's first bilateral meet. The bad news:nothing to capture the imagination.

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Lahore Balance-Sheet
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WHETHER prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's visit to Pakistan turns out to be a historic or merely a defining moment will depend on what the two countries do from here on. Ultimately, judgement on the 30 hours in Lahore will be the business of the next generation. But what of the here and now? How shall we reckon the achievement and the disappointments?

The general mood in India, clearly, is one of quiet satisfaction. There is also a palpable sense of relief. The ice has been broken , as Nawaz Sharif said in his press conference; the first bilateral summit in a decade has actually happened. Attached to this is a sense of relief: no disasters, no horrendous gaffes and no snafus.

The summit's achievements were at least commendable at three levels: the symbolic, the normative, and the substantive.

At the level of symbolism, the summit, first of all, was a response to the fanatics on both sides of the border-the Jamaat and company in Pakistan, and the Shiv Sena and cognate brigades here. The hardliners are still at work on both sides; but the radical hysterics were sent a message. The second symbolic achievement was the PM's visit to the Minar-e-Pakistan. Pakistanis are constantly in fear of 'Akhand Bharat and what they see as various types of Indian irredentists who have 'never accepted the reality of Pakistan . This visit should soothe nervous Pakistanis-if they can be soothed. The third symbolic achievement is somewhat more ineffable but important nonetheless. The visit forces on all of us, I think, the recognition that Indians and Pakistanis inhabit a common South Asian house. Interdependence and culture tie us together and the visit affirms that, simply and categorically.

The Lahore Declaration was symbolic-all declarations, in some measure, are-but it also charted a set of diplomatic norms, some new, some old. Three in particular are worth ticking off. The first was the insistence on the Shimla accord of 1972 as the basis for India-Pakistan interactions. The Shimla accord itself is a portmanteau of norms: bilateralism as the preferred method of conflict resolution; normalisation of relations via trade, people-to-people contacts; and functional cooperation; and a final settlement of Kashmir through dialogue.

The declaration in Lahore gave expression to a second norm, namely, that confidence-building and cooperation cannot be made forever conditional to a resolution of the Kashmir problem. Here, clearly, Islamabad has given ground. The third norm, and this is where New Delhi gave ground, is that summitry and high-level political contacts between the two countries cannot be held prisoner to Pakistani support of the Kashmiri militants. In short, the two countries have affirmed or acknowledged the Kashmir issue's importance and de-centered it at the same time.

The Vajpayee visit has scored also at a third level, in terms of setting a concrete, substantive agenda for the future, at least the near future. Neither leader has brought home a kitty full of redeemable chips. But they have set a course for their diplomats who, if they follow that new compass bravely and imaginatively, could bring in some real treasure.

The first area where there could be substantive gains is confidence-building and nuclear restraint. An agreement on advance notification of missile testing seems certain. In addition, a number of measures relating to command and control, crisis management and institutionalised dialogue on nuclear doctrine and practices will be dismissed. There is also interest in an accord on avoiding dangerous military practices at sea and in having a national confidence-building measures 'authority which would monitor the implementation of accords.

The second substantive achievement is to raise the level of interaction on economic cooperation to the 'political level. The commerce ministers have been instructed to sit at the table and work out a deal or two. If this happens, then it is conceivable that the entire dialogue process will be kicked upstairs to a higher level.

The third achievement of substance is the commitment to make saarc work. India and Pakistan are central to the prospects of regional cooperation. The Lahore Declaration acknowledges that if we do not all 'hang together economically, then we shall all hang separately. sapta and safta are one way of hanging together-they are long overdue. We may well see a better attitude in Pakistan on regional trade in the months to come.

All this is the good news from Lahore. What about the bad news? The bad news is that there were no reconstructions of the basic quarrels, no breakthroughs, nothing that captured the imagination. There were three potential breakthrough areas: a firm commitment on improving trade and people-to-people contacts; a promise to try and crack at least one of the minor territorial quarrels (Siachen preferably, but Wullar and Sir Creek would do); and progress on energy cooperation (power or pipelines). Even hints of a breakthrough on any one of these would have raised a lusty cheer.

Dangers ahead? I see three. First, too many claims of 'victory on both sides. Second, no quick follow-ups on the memo of understanding. Three, for whatever reason, no more summits, not even Sharif's return visit.
So let's wallow in the good feeling after Lahore; but not for too long, lest we slowly sink.

(Kanti Bajpai teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.)

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