Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has achieved a lot in his four years as prime minister. The country has witnessed an average growth rate of 8.6 per cent, probably the highest in its post-independence history, his government has passed several landmark legislations—the Right to Information Act, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and the Forest Rights Act. He has negotiated a path-breaking international agreement that will end the technology and nuclear materials embargo on India. There has been no incidence of mass violence, such as that in Gujarat in 2002 during the rule of the NDA. Neither has there been any major security lapse like the Kargil incursion during its watch. With the massive loan waiver and pay commission handout, the UPA government at first signaled that it was set for general elections, but now is seems that they are likely to take place on schedule in 2009.
So, the PM has one full year in office remaining. What should he do? The legislative impulse has run dry, so he can dole out more sops, but with inflation around, that would be a Sisyphean labour. He can brood about the Indo-US nuclear deal and how the Left has blocked his efforts to further liberalise the economy. Or he can travel to Pakistan.
A visit by an Indian Prime Minister has been overdue by at least two years. This is a most opportune moment for such a visit. There is parliamentary majority, if not consensus at home, to ensure that any forward movement with Pakistan will not get gridlocked, as in the case of the nuclear deal. That the new elected government in Pakistan, too, is ready to do business with India from the point where President Pervez Musharraf left off, points to a significant measure of consensus there as well.
There is a new government and a new mood in Islamabad. It comes at the end of an intense phase of political turmoil, one in which India did not figure as a villain. The process has weakened the baleful influence of the Pakistan army in relation to India and shifted the equilibrium against fundamentalist forces in the country. Because of this, the government does not feel it necessary to tailor their political suit to the army's cloth. Time and again, civilian leaders felt compelled to adopt postures at the behest of the army, or with a view of keeping on the right side of the generals. The situation has now changed to the point where the civilians feel compelled to maintain a healthy distance from the army.
But what really makes for a compelling case for a prime ministerial visit now is the remarkable fact that though Pakistan was wracked by intense political turmoil in the past year, the India-Pakistan peace process— begun in January 2004—maintained its momentum. Through last year the fourth round of the composite dialogue continued apace. There were important gains on the Sir Creek issue, forward movement in opening up air services between the two countries as well as cross-border movement of people and trade.Through traffic at Wagah has increased trade volumes enormously.In May, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee will go to Pakistan to wrap up the fourth round of dialogue and set the stage for the fifth.
The two sides now need a fresh impetus to resolve their larger problems. Such a push can only be accomplished at a summit level meeting. There are two issues that can reach closure almost immediately— Siachen and Sir Creek.
The tenth round of talks on Sir Creek were held in Islamabad in May 2007. They were based on a joint survey of the area that took place earlier that year. During the ninth round, in December 2006, Pakistan had already agreed to settle the maritime boundary using the internationally accepted “equidistance method”.
These are major developments, since it means that the two countries are now dealing with a common set of data which could make it easier to determine a mutually acceptable baseline point—the last point where the land boundary ends and the maritime boundary begins. This, in turn, will be the key to working out a mutually acceptable maritime boundary, the lack of which leads to hundreds of fishermen of either side being arrested by the authorities on both sides. But the issue has gained salience because there are expectations that the sea bed contains gas and oil reserves which neither side can exploit till the boundary is fixed. There is another reason why Sir Creek needs quick settlement. The UN Convention on Law of the Seas deadline ends in 2009, and if the two countries cannot submit a joint document certifying their maritime boundary, they will not get the opportunity to extend this boundary from the current 370 to 650 kms under a UN plan.
Agreements in 1989 and 1992 would have created a zone of disengagement in the Siachen region. But the process has been stuck because Pakistan does not want to authenticate the positions their forces occupy. Afraid of a Kargil-like move where Pakistanis disputed the Line of Control in Kashmir— even though its coordinates were jointly determined by surveyors of both sides— India has been balking. The Pakistanis can be persuaded to accept the Sir Creek model and accept a joint survey to authenticate the positions of the two sides. The Pakistanis were not willing to authenticate the positions earlier because contrary to their claims, their army held no positions on the glacier. With the architect of Kargil in the dog-house, India can move to settle the Siachen issue without fear of Pakistan reneging.
On the Mother of all Issues—Kashmir—too, there has been movement, albeit more subtle.The recent visit and meetings of Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah with the new Pakistani leadership indicates how times have changed. Equally significant have been the remarks of PPP leader Asif Zardari that the issue could perhaps be placed on the back burner. Kashmir no longer sells well in domestic Pakistani politics.
Yet, this should not lull India into any sense of complacency. New Delhi needs to continue a serious and substantive engagement with Pakistan and the Kashmiri parties to resolve the problem once and for all. Though the UPA government has done a lot in this area, much more needs to be done to reach a closure on this debilitating issue. Unfortunately, when negotiations with Islamabad slowed down in 2007, New Delhi perceptibly slackened its efforts towards a settlement with the Kashmiri parties. This was needless and short-sighted.
The bottom line today is that the India-Pakistan situation offers a tailor-made opportunity for a breakthrough. One that will not be based on some quick calculation of electoral gain or any personal "place in the history books" syndrome, but solid and patient diplomacy going back four years and an earnest desire for peace on both sides of the border.
This article was first published in Mail Today April 10, 2008