Democratising the Dialogue
Over the last two years, South Asian integration has become the flavour of the decade among security gurus from and about the region. Last month the Indian Delhi Policy Group run by Radha Kumar and Kanti Bajpai had sponsored a week long multi-city experts’ workshop to deliberate on modes of conflict management and resolution in New Delhi, Assam and Srinagar. Last week, the South Asian Free Media Association launched its second major parliamentarians’ jamboree on a larger scale in salubrious Bhurban. Both exercises were qualitatively different in focus and size, but both demonstrated the delegates’ interest in pushing forward the peace process between India and Pakistan. Some of the assumptions that came out of the deliberations of both conferences were based on new thinking in the post September 11 strategic environment, while others were rooted in a history of Indo-Pak conflict. The most positive affirmation that emerged from these exchanges acknowledged that parliamentarians were more committed to going forward with the peace process than the mandarins who advised them.
In more precise terms, it was agreed that by and large there is a clear realization in Pakistan that the reality of global and domestic challenges, as well as the compulsions of inter-state trade have gained a fragile ascendancy over the motivation for conflict. Much of this pragmatism is powered by the growing sense that South Asia can become a global powerhouse, second only to China and the United States, if it follows the path of economic regional integration over the next two decades. At the same time, the key drivers for peace were identified as being structural as well as strategic. For India, its quest for a seat at the UNSC table has given it an impetus to downgrade its aggression in order to remove the odium of conflict-zone hegemon from its bio-data. For Pakistan, changing priorities after September 11 have diverted its military focus to its western borders. Here, Islamabad’s imperatives of draining the swamp of non-state actors has prompted a parallel shift in policy on its Indian front.
Secondly, it is clear that concepts of statehood are shifting subtly in both countries. State ideologies and popular narratives don’t mirror each other, but reflect an important shift in public consensus in both. While in Pakistan the tension between Muslim nationalism and Islamist extremism still fuels domestic discord, the contradictions of the post-Westphalian environment and unipolarity are loosening a cold-war identity freeze. Domestic challenges have shaken, if not broken, the garrison-state paradigm which positioned Pakistan under a perpetual state of imagined or real siege, presumably from its neighbours. In India, state responses to both the spectacular Chinese successes in Asia as well as new US partnerships, and shifts in domestic power locuses from the old Gangetic-plain raj to more internal regional coalitions, has forced new accommodations.
Third, commerce and the impulse to trade with India has powered an important elite consensus in Pakistan about the virtue of de-escalating hostilities and redefining dialogue processes as well as outcomes. Both media and political players have had a substantial role to play in creating the space for a softer position on India, yet unlike business groups, both remain intellectually hostage to the first reversal, or new ‘fact on the ground.’
Fourth, the role of civil society or track two and three, the most discounted of all forces, traditionally seen as too soft a component to lead policy shifts in the security environment , has bowled its own googly into the bargain. In fact, the most important node in bolstering this process is a shift in public perceptions. The demonisation of India, as both an imagined aggressor and Public Enemy Number One has only lessened after popular cross-border movements have demythologized both people’s images of each other. Parliamentarians have taken several such initiatives, often independent of the state’s sanction, which has been instrumental in creating important constituencies for peace in both countries, particularly in Pakistan, where a handful defied state directives to walk across the Wagah border in May 2003. The tidal wave of exchange visits that such ice-breakers unleashed among politicians has been swept aside by a bigger wave of business groups, students and other groups jostling to elbow more room out of this historic and entirely unprecedented people’s movement. Yet unlike the movement of popular will that broke the Berlin Wall, this is not a case of two countries with a head on one side and a tail on another. Both Pakistanis and Indians still retain fiercely nationalist identities even in the middle of reciprocal trade, cricket and other hospitalities.
What are the contours of such a shift, and more importantly, is it sustainable? Discourse on Kashmir, which was defined by policy hawks as the core and only issue on which dialogue can take place between India and Pakistan, has shifted perceptibly to accommodate new prescriptions, not necessarily new players, in the public agenda. The most prominent sign of this policy shift is the ceasefire on the LOC that has been holding since 2002 when the two countries were eyeball to eyeball. Other powerful- building blocks in the renewed composite dialogue process of 2004, which began intermittently in 1988 with the signing of the Bhutto-Rajiv accord, and again in Lahore in 1999, when Vajpayee took his famous bus diplomacy initiative, have been the interrupted, but on-going CBMs between the two states, their nuclear and military establishments, as well as their people continue to define new contours in the bilateral relationship. Areas of convergence are being explored on the FMCT [Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty] and Disarmament Conference, but so far progress on serious nuclear CBMs are rudimentary. Movement on Siachin and Sir Creek is on the cards, but again, fears about these processes being reversed once they get off the negotiating table between policy makers are both real and grounded in experience. Recently, the relative easing of visa protocols, renewal of air, road and sea links have imbued the process with a sense of historic openings, but the most powerful symbolic CBM has been the establishment of the Muzaffarabad-Srinagar bus service, linking the people of Kashmir in one institutionalized chain across imagined and real barriers previously enforced by both states.
The next logical question is that with nationalisms on the boil in both countries, what are the potential minefields that can derail this fragile process?
One: prolonged policy confusion. This means reversals and cold-feet confusion after commitments have been made at the highest political level. An example is the suspension of the resolution of the Siachin stand-off which was first settled in Islamabad on December 1988. The project of troop redeployment from the highest and most wasteful battlefield in the world, has in fact, been the victim of two such reversals after the promises were made. Most such resolutions, in fact, end up lapsing in their implementation. The second most important factor in derailing the peace process is the absence of key stakeholders in the policy-making process. In Pakistan, new thinking on Kashmir is clearly in the air, but has substantial opponents on the ground. There is a movement beyond old bromides, but these are still balanced on a pin-head in the sense that they do not have the sanction of mainstream political or public support. Without a political reconciliation process in sight domestically, the peace coalition in Pakistan becomes hostage to the sniping of the policy hawks, the extremists and other stakeholders on the ground whose voices tend to resonate in political party agendas but not in the military regime’s single-person policy-making framework. From New Delhi as well, this reluctance to make the shift to inclusive policy could be the biggest pitfall yet. Grievances on both sides of the Kashmiri players and population have to be addressed. Democracy has to play a greater role in inclusion, but so has the process. Kashmiris have to feel invested in peace as well as the process to protect it from the spoilers from within their own ranks. Without a stake they have no leverage among their own unstable coalitions.
Other than the bus from Srinagar to Muzaffarabad, Kashmir has not reaped any benefits from the slew of CBMs being initiated between India and Pakistan. Key players in the field are not united, but remain hostage from leverage by both Islamabad and New Delhi. Among them there is a growing realisation that conflict is perhaps a losing zero-sum option, but need to keep the situation in stalemate as the only lever on the Indian government. The All Parties Hurriyet Conference sees itself, rightly or wrongly, as the main representative of the Kashmiris in the valley. The Mufti government’s legitimacy is blunted considerably by the sheer support the Hurriyet can command in the valley even after its split. Gestures are important: letting Yasin Malik present his petition of 1.5 million he has collected, for instance, demanding a voice for the Kashmiris in the peace process, would harm no-one.
Either way, in both Pakistan and India, a failure to include all democratic forces on the ground shrinks the political space from which the peace lobby operates. Even as we favour a process that paves the way for softer borders without prejudice to formally held positions, there has to be a policy conversation about win-win outcomes. To avoid conflict from flaring up over new and old sources, linkages in the composite dialogue will have to be ultimately acknowledged. Pakistan’s interests in Kashmir, it is often forgotten, arise not just from concerns about the right of Kashmiri self-determination, but also from hard-core territorial vulnerabilities on the apportionment of its main Indus water system, with India controlling the headworks from the valley. India’s construction of a dam on Baglihar is not an issue. It is its potential conversion of a hydel power run-of-the-river project into a semi-storage facility that has raised Islamabad’s hackles. Back-burner politics is not an epithet that any government, military or civilian, can survive in Pakistan with a potential water famine arising even partly out of Indian treaty violations [IWT].
Meanwhile, even as bilateral exchanges during the cold war era invariably emerged as political or military issues, the new trend to replace politics is with economics is quite strong, but must be tempered with the caveat that the one cannot do the job of the other. The good news is that the Indo- Pak Joint Study Group is forging ahead with new successes in setting up a Preferential Trading Agreement. There is a growing pressure on the Pakistani government by its businessmen to accord India its reciprocal MFN status, because the benefits in the current formal equation accrue mostly to India. This is not just because most of the tea drunk in Pakistan comes from India. Due to a combination of its larger manufacturing base and advantage obtained by having no export restrictions to Pakistan, India has in 2004 sold millions of rupees worth of goods to Pakistan, while the latter is no-where near the ball-park. So the compulsions to open up two-way traffic are unavoidable and immense. In a free trade future, India is estimated to get a market of at least two billion dollars in Pakistan, while if Pakistan follows sound business sense in India, it ultimately stands to be the net gainer in this equation because of the bigger size of the market.
Yet there is an equal if not mounting sense of unease in Pakistan, about losing all political and water-sharing leverage if Islamabad consistently removes all barriers to trade and pipelines at New Delhi’s urging. The way out of that conundrum would not be to dislocate political dimensions from the structured dialogue, but to strike an optimal balance that would suit both bilateral players. Trade cannot go the whole course in overcoming one of the oldest, bitterest political conflicts in the world. We should not expect it to. Democratising the dialogue will build trust as well as durability into the equation. And the best place to guard the peace process from military adventurism is by reducing the escalating mutual budgets and the role of the military in the same.
Sherry Rehman is the President of Policy Planning for the PPP, and member of the Foreign Affairs Committee in Parliament.