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February 22, 1999


Foreign policy experts 'cautious, but hopeful'

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Amberish K Diwanji in New Delhi

The Lahore Declaration has entered the history books, promising many things to India and Pakistan. It was the outcome of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's bus ride to Lahore, where he met his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharief.

The memorandum of understanding speaks of improving bilateral ties while also seeking to make progress on the Kashmir dispute. And following the nuclear tests by both countries, it mentions steps to ensure against accidental use of the nuclear weapons.

Yet, after all the hype and hoopla, will the assurances finally matter? It is a fact that despite Rajiv Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto's best intentions, both were unable to make much progress in improving bilateral ties, becoming victims of their respective nation's domestic politics.

Former foreign secretary M K Rasgotra squarely blamed the media for going overboard on the summit. "Both leaders appear to be cautious, yet hopeful. It is the Indian media that is expecting too much and creating too much noise," he said. But he agreed that "the Lahore Declaration marks a fresh beginning, which is good".

Arundhati Ghose, former ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, is also quite pleased with the summit's outcome. "I expected much less, thinking it would be just a photo opportunity for the media," she admitted. "After all, travelling by bus is a very dramatic gesture! Yet, after the final statements, I think it can be called a successful meeting."

But Professor Kanti Bajpai of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, a foreign policy analyst, is disappointed. He believes the summit failed to produce any real breakthrough.

"There are only two things worthy of note that came out of the summit," Bajpai said. "The first is the agreement to give advance notice about missile testing, which is a real operational confidence-building measure. The second is that it reiterates the Simla Agreement of 1972 to resolve outstanding issues bilaterally."

The notice of missile testing will help allay fears of the kind that arose when India tested the Prithvi missile and Pakistan the Ghauri. Both sides were convinced the missiles were aimed at each other!

The reiteration of the Simla Agreement has also caught the attention of Indo-Pak policy analyst Pran Chopra. "The two countries have reaffirmed the Simla Agreement in a post-nuclear South Asia. What this means is that future talks will cover all issues of concern, including nuclear arms and Kashmir," he said.

Chopra said he is "optimistic in the sense that I am not pessimistic" about the final outcome of the summit. "The Simla Agreement was more or less forgotten. At least the latest talks have revived it."

Both sides ended up yielding a bit. For India, the pluses are that Pakistan has agreed to talk about economic and other ties even as the talks on Kashmir continue, which is a step forward from its earlier stand that until the Kashmir dispute is resolved, all other talks are meaningless.

For Pakistan, the fact that New Delhi has agreed to discuss Kashmir, rather than use the old line, 'Kashmir is an integral part of India', is a positive outcome.

"The benefit is that Vajpayee has managed to get Pakistan to loosen the connection between Kashmir and other ties, while Sharief has a commitment from India to talk about Kashmir," said Bajpai. "Yet, in many ways, this is exactly what the Simla Agreement had declared. The current summit did not go beyond that, which is what many were hoping for, perhaps naively."

Bajpai said he would have been pleased if both sides had agreed to resolve at least one outstanding dispute in a given timeframe. "For instance, both could have agreed to resolve the Siachen dispute, a fight over barren, frozen territory that is proving extremely expensive to both sides. Any breakthrough there would have generated tremendous goodwill and a feeling that the talks can make headway," he said. "Instead, we only have general statements about having more talks!"

Chopra, however, said that with both the top leaders agreeing to continue the talks, they will certainly get a push.

While Indian hopes are quite high, the Pakistanis have been somewhat low-key in their reaction. The Jamaat-e-Islami's strike forced Lahore to shut down in protest against Vajpayee's visit.

But Chopra did not put too much stock on the report. "I know the anti-India sections are very vocal, but I don't know if they are very large or a majority of Pakistan supports them," he said.

Ghose pointed out, "There was a small news report that traders in Lahore remonstrated against the Jamaat forcing them to shut down their shops. That is certainly a positive action showing that at least the traders want ties with India."

But she added that Sharief has his task cut out in getting the Pakistani politicians and people to support his mission for better ties with India. "Vajpayee has the advantage of continuing what I K Gujral started; his worst critics may be his own party members. Sharief will have to get his people's backing," she said.

Thankfully, the fact that the three Pakistani defence services chiefs were present to receive Vajpayee at the Governor's House in Lahore and attended the banquet in his honour will send out strong signals about the military's perspective on Indo-Pak ties. "Sharief was very intelligent in getting the three chiefs to meet Vajpayee," said Ghose.

Bajpai believes a chance was lost to establish a commercial link. "It would have been very positive if the two sides had spoken of issues like buying Pakistani electricity, or setting up a pipeline, or starting trade. What has happened now is that it has gone back to the bureaucracies, who have their own agendas, to the armed forces who may not be too happy at the sudden turn of events," he lamented.

Yet, the fact that the two have spoken has sent the message across that the subcontinent can take care of itself and does not need chaperoning from the United States. "The West harps on the region being unstable like Bosnia. I am glad our leaders have proved them wrong," Ghose said.

"The fact that the Lahore Declaration speaks about the new responsibilities of the two countries, obviously a reference to the nuclear weapons, proves both sides have realised the situation has changed," Rasgotra said.

Much now depends on how the two sides handle their domestic fronts, and how the talks progress. Public memory is frightfully short and the euphoria can evaporate quickly, making subsequent talks more difficult.

"The trouble is that if we put too much hope and political effort into the summit and too little comes of it, no one will be willing to put too much into the next round," said Bajpai. "Hence it is important that at least in one or two areas some breakthrough comes about."

"A beginning has been made and that needs to be applauded. There might soon be another summit when Sharief visits India. All in all, it is in the right direction," said Chopra.

The prime minister's Lahore visit

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