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Now walk the talk!

By Praful Bidwai
May 06, 2003 18:55 IST
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It is not often that an event lasting just 10 minutes holds the potential to undo at least some of the damage inflicted by nations upon each other over 18 long months. Pakistan Prime Minister Mir Zafrullah Khan Jamali's April 28 telephone call to Atal Bihari Vajpayee is a worthy candidate for that category. It reciprocates Vajpayee's overture made from Kashmir on April 18 and sets the ball rolling for an India-Pakistan thaw. Cautious optimism is growing as both governments make probing moves. In the absence of a tactless action like raising of the Kashmir issue in the UN Security Council by Pakistan or a major terrorist attack in Kashmir, the process seems set to move forward, although not without hitches.

By all indications, Pakistan's leaders have made a decision to pursue Vajpayee's offer in a positive spirit. General Pervez Musharraf's comment that it is 'a good offer,' to be taken seriously, is a strong sign. Even more welcome is his reported post-April 18 remark to a group of senior Pakistani editors that if India-Pakistan talks were to begin, the 'victory would be neither mine nor Prime Minister Vajpayee's. It would be the victory of negotiation and dialogue.' Since then, Jamali has said Pakistan would walk 'the extra mile' in re-starting a dialogue. The Pakistan government has reportedly prepared the blueprint of a framework for a dialogue process, including confidence-building measures.

Even on the issue of the greatest concern to India, the 'cross-border' activities of jihadi outfits, Pakistan's Interior Minister Faisal Saleh Hayat has sent out positive signals. Presiding over a high-level inter-provincial law-and-order conference on April 28, he said the law of the land would be strictly enforced and no one would be allowed to use Pakistan's soil for hostile activities against another country. This reiterates the gist of General Musharraf's January 12, 2002 address, which India welcomed. He also specifically said that the Anti-Terrorism Act would be applied to banned jihadi groups who 'have resumed activities under new names.' This clearly referred to outfits like Lashkar-e-Jhanghvi, Al-Badr and Hizbul Mujaheedin. Jamali told Vajpayee too: 'Terrorism in all forms should be condemned.' This suggests, according to an Indian Express briefing from Islamabad, that 'the system' or Establishment in Pakistan has decided to pick up the threads of dialogue.

It is imperative that both New Delhi and Islamabad seize the moment. The time couldn't be more propitious. Vajpayee's talks offer has generally, if cautiously, been welcomed in India, and not just by political parties. Even the RSS hasn't opposed it. Its only strong critics are maverick Hindutva extremists like Ashok Singhal, for whom even the hawkish L K Advani has become a 'traitor' (to the communal cause). The general consensus is that Vajpayee's well-timed offer of talks to Pakistan might signal the welcome end of a long and sterile phase of official rigidity and India's own version of 'coercive diplomacy.'

It is irrelevant to ask if Vajpayee's talk gambit will succeed, because it's now being made from a position of strength, unlike before Lahore or Agra. Political-strategic balances haven't changed radically since 2001. Regardless of motivations, Vajpayee's April 18 speech advocates a live-and-let-live policy vis-à-vis an embittered neighbour, with whom we have to co-exist, given geography. Reconciliation with Pakistan, and rebuilding trust so that our mutual relations improve, are preconditions for the security and prosperity of both countries. They are necessary to combat the scourges of national chauvinism, militarism and, above all, communalism, which aggravate soluble problems and jeopardise peaceful coexistence.

Assuming that Vajpayee's offer was made with serious deliberation, it could only have been the result of a mix of factors: gentle external goading in the changed post-Iraq situation, anticipation of greater (and more overt) international, especially US, pressure for talks with Pakistan, coupled with a desire to end a long, sterile phase of damaged relations. Vajpayee may also have other motives: to assert himself within the BJP and the NDA (where challenges to his leadership have weakened), and attempt a new initiative before the coming state assembly elections make things difficult. Reviving SAARC, which has been moribund because of India's refusal to attend its summit last year, may also have played a part. Vajpayee must now get his own party to back his overture with some enthusiasm.

The topmost priority for India and Pakistan as far as mutual relations go is to break the self-imposed policy logjam in which they both find themselves. Both have pursued a de facto policy of compellence in recent years, especially since the December 2001 attack on Parliament House. India sought to bend Pakistan to its will by mobilising 700,000 troops at the border and demanding Islamabad hand over 20 terrorists on the 'wanted' list. (Later, it modified the demand to verifiable, permanent end to 'cross-border' infiltration.)

Pakistan too has used coercion to try to bring India to the negotiating table on Kashmir. It responded to India's troop build-up by deploying 300,000 soldiers at the border. Both ratcheted up their war machines to dangerous levels and at least twice came close to the brink of actual combat -- with a disturbing, acknowledged, potential for escalation to the nuclear level. Both fully used their leverage with the US to pressure each other.

However, coercion didn't work. This was only to be expected. Compellence is even more difficult to achieve than deterrence. Deterrence is about preventing your adversary from doing what you don't want him to do -- by threatening him with 'unacceptable damage.' Compellence is about forcing your adversary to do what you want him to do. Deterrence can, theoretically, work between two equal or unequal adversaries provided they can both assuredly inflict unconscionable damage upon each other. It doesn't matter much if one of them has 3,000 nuclear missiles, and the other 'only' 800. Both can wipe out each other. (At smaller force levels too, a 'deterrence equation' can hold provided rivals share an understanding of what's 'unacceptable damage.') In practice, deterrence, as this column has often argued, is fraught, unstable, degenerative, and prone to failure.

Compellence is even worse. It assumes a significant asymmetry or disproportion between rivals. You can't force your adversary to act in a certain way unless you have overwhelming superiority over him. In the India-Pakistan case, the degree of asymmetry essential to compellence doesn't obtain. An overall conventional superiority of 1:5-to-1 or less, and a nuclear-level disproportion of, say, 3-to-1 is no good here. Nor is advantage/strength in some forces or sectors, coupled with weakness in others.

Thus, even within the traditional (and flawed) 'realist' framework, it was always foolhardy of India and Pakistan to resort to compellence -- when they don't even have stable mutual deterrence. The dangers of raising their military standoff to its highest pitch to achieve compellence are even greater because of the systemic, strategic nature of India-Pakistan hostility, complicated by competing notions of nationhood, territorial disputes, mutual distrust and domestic factors related to religion and communalism.

So the present turn towards abandoning coercion-centred approaches and giving diplomacy a chance is a long overdue correction. The gains from this change, however tentative, must not be dissipated. This can only happen if the Jamali-Vajpayee conversation is followed up with some hard-to-reverse steps, both unilateral and bilateral.

As of now, five small steps have been identified or proposed for discussion: economic cooperation, cultural exchanges, people-to-people contacts, resumption of flights, and restoration of sporting links. These are worthy and important, but may fall short of the critical minimum needed for a breakthrough and successful dialogue. This minimum derives from the very logic of a return to non-coercive diplomacy.

What's needed is full restoration of the communications links -- road, rail and air -- and the diplomatic relations severed or severely downgraded in December 2001. Apart from being dysfunctional, the continued disruption of these links is causing enormous hardship to the two peoples without giving either government any advantage. There's no reason why India should not unilaterally announce the restoration of all such relations as a prelude to a structured dialogue on the whole gamut of issues, including Kashmir, end to support to militancy, economic relations, Siachen, and other matters.

The two missions must be upgraded and new high commissioners appointed. This may sound maximalist, but it isn't. After all, the rupturing of links was a reaction to the Parliament House attack followed by the conscious escalation of military rivalry. The de-escalation of that rivalry last October and its end now entail restoration and more.

Here lies the real test of the principle of bilateralism which India strongly advocates. If India and Pakistan don't resolutely pursue the path of reconciliation and dialogue, they are liable to invite external intervention. The coming visit by US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and the G-8 summit in June coincide with a hardening of US positions under neo-conservative influence after the Iraq war. This could create new pressures on and challenges to bilateralism.

New Delhi and Islamabad must show a resolve to walk the talk -- before domestic compulsions and global uncertainties complicate matters.

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Praful Bidwai