July 13, 2001


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Ashwin Mahesh

Mutually Advantageous Detente

Pakistan's military leader Pervez Musharraf's visit to India to hold talks with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has drawn the full spectrum of responses. Many Indians see this as little more than another round of raised expectations that will be inevitably dashed against the rocks of irreconcilable differences. Others see such discussions to be the only recourse available to both nations, notwithstanding our disputes. The former opinion rests on the evidence of history, the latter reminds us of the promise of an imagined future.

Neither Vajpayee nor Musharraf can realistically expect to leave the negotiating table with the appearance of victory, for the other's constituency will not tolerate such an outcome. Both sides must know from the many years of conflict that triumph, whether in negotiations or on the battlefields of war and public opinion, will not be swift and painless. Defeat sits poorly with the conquered; our colonized past is adequate evidence of this. If India outmanoeuvres Pakistan, we may well achieve no more than to lay the grounds for future confrontation. Equally, if Pakistan alone appears to have gained from these negotiations, almost certainly a future Indian government will seek to reverse those gains.

The only meaningful alternative is self-evident -- we must both win.

The abrupt turns in the evolution of the military government in Islamabad present little opportunity to understand Islamabad's intentions. To all appearances, Musharraf's Pakistan runs by personal diktat; apparently it is only at the negotiating table itself that his stance on various contentious issues will be known.

Our national interests demand, however, that we prepare to engage the general as either friend or foe, whichever of the two he may choose. Our skill lies in presenting these alternate choices, and in convincing the visitor that that one is unequivocally superior to the other.

The familiar posture on Kashmir is adversarial, and here India has repeatedly failed to press home obvious advantages. Even as administrations changed, the one quality that Indian policy consistently lacked is "cleverness" in advancing the Indian position and in rebutting the Pakistani ones. If the general views the future of Indo-Pak relations to remain confrontational, our responses will have to demonstrate a substantially enhanced engagement of Pakistani rhetoric. Nonetheless, we can seek separation from the failed approaches of the past at the same time.

First, announce that we intend to withdraw our original petition to the United Nations, thereby removing an opportunity for third parties to influence either side. Immediately thereafter, declare that it is the intention of the Government of India to determine the will of the people of all regions of Jammu & Kashmir, including by means of [but not limited to] separate plebiscites in the state's various regions and among displaced Kashmiris elsewhere. And further, to this end, that such plebiscites will be held, immediately in Ladakh and Jammu, and upon the withdrawal of troops per previously agreed resolutions, in Kashmir as well.

The new initiatives must suggest to Pakistan that India will find ways of moving forward into the world community on her own strengths; the choice before Islamabad must be one of inclusion in this transition or deliberate opposition to it.

Over time, India's economic and military advances will likely be acknowledged formally by other nations. As Victor Gobarev argued last September in a Cato Institute paper, given India's great-power aspirations, it may be inevitable that Indian foreign policy will be allied with that of the first nation to overtly recognise our nuclear status and its accompanying regional importance. In this regard, China, Russia and the US may prefer India to scale back its weapons programme, but each must know privately that the first among them to formally recognise Indian nuclear capabilities and economic potential is likely to garner an important ally.

For Pakistan, the consequences of any existing power embracing an Indian entry into global decision-making bodies cannot be overlooked. As an adversary, Pakistan will need to maintain parity with Indian military might at increasing cost to its much smaller economy. Even more significantly, being unable to independently sustain an adversarial position, Pakistan will need to embrace a servile relationship with a larger and more powerful nation, China being the obvious candidate. The civilizational conflict inherent in such a relationship will likely pit Pakistan's religious establishment against its secular and military wings, ensuring internal destabilization more than the furthering of any external interests.

India must offer the Pakistanis an alternative. This requires setting aside the dividing issues, affirming only an intent to resolve them amicably. The Mutually Assured Destruction of potential nuclear confrontation must be replaced by an alternate paradigm, one that is reciprocally advantageous instead of threatening! By this approach, each nation must view the other not as inimical to its existence or scheming to subvert its development, but as allied for simultaneous advantage in a manner that deliberately downplays the differences. This can be achieved in both symbolic and substantive ways.

  • First, India and Pakistan must together seek a combined "subcontinental" seat on the United Nations Security Council and rotate authority over it as the European Union does among its member-states. The imbalance in populations can be reflected in the rotation, for instance by India holding the seat every four or five years to each of Pakistan's one.

    Islamabad's view of Indian military accomplishment has always been laced with the fear of a hegemonistic neighbour; the quickest path to dismissing this worry is to co-opt Pakistan into the advantages we drive from military might, whether or not the Pakistanis themselves could obtain similar advantage.

  • Second, this security initiative must be augmented by parallel moves in the economic arena. The two nations must endorse the view that free trade, by which many have promised their growth, must include the unrestricted movement of people as much as of financial capital. Along these lines, India and Pakistan must each adopt a non-restrictive trading regime towards the smaller neighbouring nations -- Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and the Central Asian republics -- that permits citizens of those states to live and work in India or Pakistan without restraint. The possibility that Indians and Pakistanis themselves could similarly obtain rights of movement and employment in all South and Central Asian countries -- and eventually in all free-trade zones around the world -- must be defined as an objective of this process.
For decades together, the Indo-Pak conflict has been viewed within the narrow domain of poor Third World nations allying themselves with the already powerful. For the most part, however, this has been an imposed consideration. India has always viewed herself to be naturally eligible for worldwide respect, and Pakistan has long sought to distinguish herself in the Islamic world as a nation where learning, equality, and other attributes of open societies exist freely amidst religious affirmation and not in conflict with it.

For both nations, removing the fetter of limiting our discourse to Kashmir is advantageous. The solution to this imbroglio lies not in an exchange of acceptable positions in this small arena. Instead, the real opportunity for Pakistanis and Indians alike lies in understanding that our continuing conflict is an irritant that undermines the larger opportunity -- to mount the stage of the entire world together.

It is time to abandon the conflict for petty rewards and turn instead to the battle for international respect. A Mutually Advantageous Detente of the world's latest nuclear haves can recreate the world order with an identifiably pro-active initiative, replacing the predictably reactive nature of the past.

It is important that the Indian negotiators think creatively. Persisting with the failed approaches of the past will consign India to endless confrontation, additionally forcing Pakistan into unhelpful alliances with potentially antagonistic states. Even a negotiated settlement on the minor issues will bring only nominal rewards if neither side can profess lasting agreement. A Nobel Prize or other acclaim garnered by mere opportunism will surely be tarred when the next military conflict recasts the prime minister and the general in the image of Yasser Arafat, heralded for illusory successes. Genuine peace must outlive at least its authors!

In one stroke of imaginative unilateralism, Vajpayee can raise himself substantially from the relatively modest position of being a well-regarded Third World leader. Whether this summit is historic will be judged by his ability to simultaneously address the entrenched local conflict in Kashmir and set the subcontinent on the path of regaining past pre-eminence. Mutually Advantageous Detente will bring genuine novelty to his efforts and challenge Musharraf to embrace them. As an alternative, the PM can persist with Mutually Assured Destruction, the glittering opportunity to be remembered by the dead.

Ashwin Mahesh

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