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India and Pakistan: If the two PMs meet

September 17, 2013
Nawaz Sharif and Manmohan Singh. — File photo
Nawaz Sharif and Manmohan Singh. — File photo

The annual session of the UN General Assembly is now imminent and the heads of countries across the globe are getting ready to visit New York for the occasion. This grand gathering provides an opportunity for the world’s leaders to address the General Assembly and also to meet among themselves outside the formal conference. This year, as is customary, the Prime Ministers of both India and Pakistan are expected to be at the UN, and as so often in the past, there is much discussion about the desirability of their getting together for what would be their first meeting after Mr Nawaz Sharif’s swearing-in. These are seldom trouble-free occasions, for Indo-Pak relations are only rarely without strife that taps into the latent hostility between them.

This year is no exception: incidents along the LoC in which there have been exchanges of fire and lives have been lost have brought about a marked deterioration in relations, with India especially incensed by the ambush of a patrolling party in which several soldiers were lost. The public clamour as a result of this provocative incident has made it difficult for the Indian authorities to plan for a meeting with the Pakistani leader in New York. Overtures have come from Pakistan but are yet to meet a positive response. Yet the door has not been closed and the meeting in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, between the Foreign Minister of India and the senior representative from Pakistan has revived expectation that the Prime Ministers may be able to get together after all.

This is a not wholly unfamiliar scenario and something similar has been seen time and again. Terrorist incidents have been engineered on several occasions with the evident purpose of interrupting the laboured yet persistent effort to bring a measure of predictability and normality into bilateral relations.

The leaders, who may be looking for ways forward, find themselves hard pressed by the actions of the terrorist groups and the shady organisations behind them, which are bent on halting moves towards dialogue. Against such a background, the possibility of a meeting between the two Prime Ministers acquires significance even if nothing much more than an exchange of courtesies and a brief review of the prevailing situation can be expected from it.

In the present case, no preparations have been made that could lead one to expect that substantive bilateral agreements could be on the cards, so the active speculation surrounding the event may be misplaced. This is not to diminish its importance, for the relationship between the two countries is of prime significance to each of them, which is why they keep returning to it even when the circumstances are not very encouraging.

Should they meet in New York, which now seems distinctly possible after the Bishkek meeting of the ministers, even though no major result may be attainable, the leaders could try to set in motion improved procedures for reducing the risk of armed confrontation along the LoC. This is where the two sides have most recently been at odds and this is where trouble could flare up again.

Several practical ideas for better management and risk reduction along the LoC have been advanced in recent years and could be taken up at the appropriate time. One obvious way is for the troops on both sides to pull back from the forward positions where they are ‘eyeball to eyeball’ and the risk of conflict is ever-present, but this may not prove acceptable so long as any stepping back by India could be seen as a lowering of the barrier to infiltration from the other side, something that remains a major plague to Indian security. So the kind of arrangement that was agreed with China, where both moved back by agreement, may not be practicable here, but yet it is important to have better management procedures that reduce the risk of a sudden flare-up. Some form of understanding on this point, however limited in reach, could be a useful outcome from the meeting.

It would also be helpful if the meeting could lead to progress on matters where a measure of agreement already exists. Trade is one such: both sides recognise mutual interest in trade expansion and have often signified their intention to do something about it, but momentum has been lost owing to persistent problems in other aspects of the bilateral ties. Mr Nawaz Sharif has shown particular interest in the growth of trade and this can encourage a more determined effort to achieve results. Yet it should not be forgotten that his predecessor, Mr Zardari, was no less interested in improved trade but could not ultimately do a great deal to open the gates wider. It will require concerted effort at the top to obtain the results that both leaders wish to see.

Apart from trade, there are several other issues that remain in limbo despite both sides having agreed to take them forward. Perhaps the one that evokes the greatest expectation among the voiceless many on both sides is the matter of visas. After much deliberation, it was agreed that entry visas should be given on arrival to senior citizens, a decision that created much anticipation among aging members of divided families. But this, too, has remained on hold as relations have taken a dip.

Maybe the meeting in New York can set in motion ways and means of settling such subjects, which are not inherently controversial and would bring equal benefit on both sides of the border. Yet so long as the overall relationship itself is beset with uncertainties, things can readily go wrong and forward steps reversed.

The two sides need to advance towards a broad settlement of their differences on all fronts, without which, as experience has shown, backsliding on more limited agreements is all too likely. Over the last few decades there have been many occasions when various issues, including nearly all of those listed on the agenda of the composite dialogue, have been brought close to agreement only to remain finally unresolved. So it is important to aim at something more than the piecemeal, occasional agreements that are littered in the story of Indo-Pak relations.

The most ambitious effort to bring about a broad settlement in detail is the back channel effort between Mr Manmohan Singh and Gen. Musharraf. No official accounts have been provided but there are several reports by those in the know, especially from Pakistan, that outline a different order of relations that was envisaged and largely agreed in the back channel. To revive and build on that is the real task before the leaders.

The writer is India’s former Foreign Secretary

— By arrangement with The Statesman/ANN