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Political costs are worth it

August 12, 2013

IS the India-Pakistan relationship doomed to be stuck in its crisis-prone nature forever?

It seems so at moments like the present one: a new prime minister in Pakistan talks of improving Indo-Pak ties passionately but before we know it, the two sides are back to pointing fingers at each other after an untoward incident on the Line of Control.

Some say we were close to an unprecedented breakthrough in 2007. This is debatable. But even if there was that moment, it is gone now.

The bureaucratic and expert-level solution to any impasse is to set up committees and working groups and undertake structured dialogues to thrash out solutions to problems.

India and Pakistan are no strangers to this. Both sides have spent an awful amount of time in technical, solution-drafting meetings over the years. And every time a fresh dialogue process starts, there is more of this.

The point is not to discredit the formal procedures or such efforts. Not much can be achieved without these. But there is a case to be made that we have overdone this while failing miserably on implementing any of the recommendations.

India-Pakistan ties are at a rather unusual moment as far as long-standing rivalries with complex outstanding disputes go.

We are not stuck on the ‘what to do’ question. Both sides have worked and reworked the contours of solutions for virtually all the ‘core’ outstanding issues. We not only know what to do but in most cases even the mechanisms to succeed are well established. Take the obvious examples.

An agreement on Siachen was almost concluded in 1989-90. Both sides realise that the final formula will end up being somewhere close to this original one. Thus far however, the Indian military has vetoed any compromise deal.

Sir Creek and Wullar Barrage have all the surveying and groundwork laid out already. Experts have proposed various possible compromises. One is told that the working level officials only need a go-ahead from the top.

On trade, the most immediate problem is the MFN on one side and non-tariff barriers on the other. There are no technical glitches on the MFN count. The PPP cabinet approved it twice during its term in office. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif only has to okay it again.

Some of the Indian non-tariff barriers are tougher to deal with but others are simply procedural and easily fixable. There are detailed studies out there on what to do — they need to be scrutinised.

Irony of ironies, India and Pakistan have shown most flexibility on the Kashmir dispute over the past decade. Talk to anyone within the wire on either side and they’ll tell you that the Musharraf-Singh four-point formula is what you have to go back to. Any fresh effort has to be focused on rebuilding support for this. There isn’t anything else that will stick.

The real bottleneck is not the technicalities of what is to be done but the good old cliché: lack of political will to stand up and cash in on the low-hanging fruit.

To be sure, will is not merely about the desire for peace. Hardly anyone doubts prime ministers Sharif and Singh’s determination to improve India-Pakistan ties. But the leaderships also need to use their political mandate to push through the known solutions despite the inevitable political costs they’ll have to incur.

Mind you, I have deliberately avoided use of the term ‘consensus building’. Of course, no political leadership should or can push through such major decisions without getting key sections of opinion makers behind them. But ‘broad bipartisan consensus’ is a bit of a myth that often becomes the politically correct excuse for inaction and lack of statesmanship.

There are recent examples where both countries have risen above their conception of the greater national interest. The passage of the US-India nuclear deal despite intense opposition from the Indian left was one such episode. So was Musharraf’s four-point formula and the back channel with India.

Bluntly put, peace between the two countries will have short-term political costs for both governments — shy away from this and we’ll be stuck forever.

Perhaps the lamest, and yet most typical, bureaucratic excuse for lack of forward movement is the ‘time is not right’ mantra. Pakistan has often used this to good effect over the years. The Indians seem to be employing it now.

One is told that the Indian elections are round the corner and the already weak Congress government can’t be seen taking a risk on Pakistan. OK. But then this is exactly what political will is all about, isn’t it?

Come next year, no matter how well it does, the daunting energy, terrorism and inflation challenges would have caught up with the Sharif government. It will then be our turn to impress upon the Indians that the opportune window has passed as far as Islamabad is concerned. And then if history is anything to go by, we’ll keep getting disrupted by one or the other mini-crisis.

To be sure, ‘ripeness’ for conflict resolution is often invented. The right time is simply when leaders decide to take the plunge and make the tough decisions required to overwhelm entrenched interests. Leaders must create this space; it doesn’t automatically arrive.

Notable voices from the India-Pakistan track II circuit, most recently Sherry Rehman and Amitabh Mattoo, are beginning to suggest a need for a prime ministerial visit between the two sides as a symbolic gesture to breathe fresh life into the dialogue process.

Tied to this important symbolic move should be a tangible forward movement on one of the key issues. Let us start with the least politically controversial: formalisation of an MFN status by Pakistan and a unilateral reduction in a specific set of Indian non-tariff barriers.

The writer is South Asia adviser at the US Institute of Peace, Washington, D.C.