Sense and summitry

April 21, 2012

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THE summit meeting of President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at New Delhi on April 8 was held unexpectedly, and concluded with results none had expected. In the process, the leaders blew sky-high the dogmas on prior preparation.

The talks were fruitful in two respects, particularly. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Pakistan has become more probable than before and, relatedly, a solution of the Sir Creek issue now seems ‘doable’.

Only a few days earlier on March 27 when the prime ministers of the two countries met at Seoul, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani invited Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to visit Pakistan. He replied that he would like to do so but only “after something solid” is achieved on the subjects on the agenda of talks between them.

One is progress on bringing to book in Pakistan the perpetrators of 26/11 which is significant enough to enable the prime minister to visit Pakistan without unduly upsetting public opinion in India. Another is progress on the Sir Creek issue in diplomatic exchanges from the ‘doable’ to the ‘all but done’. The leaders can ink the deal in Islamabad. Prospects of the visit become far brighter then.

Is it not time that the precedent of the New Delhi summit is followed hereafter and the pattern faithfully followed in Seoul abandoned? The prime ministers met, in the hideous phrase, ‘on the sidelines of the nuclear safety summit’ in Seoul.

Our leaders have always been meeting ‘on the sidelines’ of some international conference or another rather like timid lovers meeting furtively on ‘the sidelines’ of a family gathering. Saarc, NAM, CHOGM and the like, besides, of course, the annual session of the UN General Assembly provide opportunities for meeting without raising any hackles at home.

Since Nov 26, 2008, we have followed a route whose milestones testify to wasted time — the meetings between President Zardari and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at Yekaterinburg on June 16, 2009; Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani at Sharm El Sheikh on July 16, 2009; the foreign secretaries’ meeting in New Delhi on Feb 25, 2010; the prime ministers’ meeting at Thimphu on April 30, 2010; the foreign secretaries’ meeting in Islamabad on June 24, 2010, the foreign ministers’ meeting on July 15, 2010.

On Feb 10, 2011, foreign secretaries Nirupama Rao and Salman Bashir met and paved the way for a successful meeting between Foreign Ministers Hina Rabbani Khar and S.M.

Krishna in New Delhi in July 2011. The prime ministers met twice in 2011; once during an Indo-Pak cricket match at Mohali, on March 30, and, next, on Nov 10, 2011, in the Maldives but ‘on the sidelines’ of the Saarc summit.

The leaders simply do not meet in each other’s capital. To be fair, Manmohan Singh’s planned trip to Islamabad in 2007 was aborted by President Musharraf’s improper sack of the chief justice that year. And then came the Mumbai blasts on Nov 26, 2008. A determined effort should be made to overcome the obstacles to substantive talks on Siachen and Kashmir.

In the draft Agra Declaration (July 2001) both sides agreed, in para 6, “on the following dialogue structure : (a) annual summit meetings; (b) biannual meetings between the Minister of External Affairs of India and the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Pakistan; (c) Foreign Office consultations at the level of Foreign Secretaries”.

Success was aborted because at the very last meeting the agreed draft was rejected by the Bharatiya Janata Party government’s leaders, prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, his deputy Lal Kishen Advani and the minister of external affairs Jaswant Singh who had written out the crucial para one in his own hand in agreement with the foreign minister of Pakistan Abdul Sattar.

But para 6 of the declaration still holds good. Its clauses (b) and (c) on meetings of foreign ministers and foreign secretaries are being followed. Why not implement clause (a) also and thus institutionalise annual summits of the prime ministers?

To be sure, no meeting by itself, no matter at what level, can by itself resolve any issue. But denuding the summit of the character of an exceptional event and making it part of a regular exchange of views will help in two ways, it will not arouse high expectations and, next, it will not invite the kind of criticism opposition leaders like to level at any move out of the routine.

The perils of summitry must be reckoned with realistically. It has an ancient lineage from the time the Queen of Sheba went to Jerusalem to meet Solomon, with a train of camels laden with gold and spices. “She communed with him of all that was in her heart.”

In modern times it was Winston Churchill who first used the word ‘summit’ in an historic speech in the House of Commons on May 11, 1953 soon after Stalin’s death. “A conference on the highest level should take place between the leading powers,” he said, warning that “if there is not at the summit of the nations the will to win the greatest prize [peace] …

doom-laden responsibility will fall upon those who now possess the power to decide”. Churchill’s proposal was rejected not only by president Eisenhower but also by his own cabinet, especially foreign secretary Anthony Eden.

A fine opportunity was missed. But it provides a lesson. No diplomatic move can succeed unless it enjoys domestic support. Summits are held for a variety of purposes. One is to size up the adversary like the Kennedy-Khrushchev encounter at Vienna in June 1961. It was a disaster. The rift widened.

Another purpose is more cynical. It is to raise the leaders’ standing among his own people. Nixon used this tactic in his declining years. One sound purpose is to arrest a dangerous trend. The Nehru-Liaquat summit in New Delhi in April 1950 averted war. There were no prior preparations; but there are occasions when preparations are necessary.

Even a sceptic like Henry Kissinger says that “the possibility of using summit conferences to mark a new departure in the relations of states should not be underestimated”.

A classic example is the summit which president Charles de Gaulle arranged with chancellor Konrad Adenauer on Sept 14, 1958 at his family home in Colombey-les-Deux-Églises to avoid hostile demonstrations in Paris. That meeting laid the foundations of Franco-German entente on which the European Union rests today. De Gaulle wanted the two countries “to walk hand in hand”. This became possible because both sides desired friendship and the leaders had the capacity to lead and deliver.

The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.