For the moment, India's government must manage, not promote, ties with Pakistan.
Once upon a time, Jawaharlal Nehru made foreign policy and Girija Shankar Bajpai and K.P.S Menon implemented it, and all was well. Even after the China fiasco of 1962, South Block, the PMO and MEA, ruled the roost as far as foreign policymaking was concerned. That changed when it came to the nuclear deal and the new friendship with the US. Polarisation on the degree of friendship that we should seek from one country or another may be acceptable, but when it comes to the strategy to deal with external threats, at least a basic consensus on fundamental issues is critical.
Today, the national consensus on Pakistan and China is limited to the recognition that both are in illegal occupation of Indian territory and that the continuing claims of these countries pose a serious and imminent threat to India. Beyond that, there are as many opinions as there are people. The government itself is clear on the minimum requirements of a possible settlement with both China and Pakistan, but for the rest, it does not rule out any option. It is ready to go the extra mile for peace and rules out the use of force, even a limited strike, as an option. Wherever possible, India is willing to work with both countries in the UN and elsewhere on issues of common interest.
On Pakistan, the basic consensus is that Kashmir is an integral part of India legally and constitutionally, and that the borders cannot be redrawn. This can be stretched to mean conversion of the Line of Control (LoC), but Pakistan rejected that option long ago. No one in India has any doubt that Pakistan perpetrates terrorism as part of its policy. After Sharm el-Sheikh, we saw that India is not in favour of acknowledging that in Balochistan, Pakistan is a victim of terrorism.
Beyond this consensus, Indian and Pakistani moves are carefully watched by the people of India. Neither the hawks nor the doves hold any particular appeal. The government of the day cannot presume that its mandate to rule the country gives it a free hand to negotiate a deal with Pakistan. Atal Bihari Vajpayee had greater credibility as a peacemaker than any other prime minister before or after him because of his long association with the Jan Sangh. Still, Lahore and Agra became tombstones, not milestones, on his road to peace. His bus journey to Lahore became a fiasco not only because of Kargil, but also because it was evident that tourists would travel to Lahore and terrorists would use the same bus on the return.
We trust our leaders with the future of the nation, but not with settling disputes with our neighbours. Such a limitation of the power of the executive must be accepted by every government. Including Kashmir on the agenda of the dialogue with Pakistan was clearly a risk that PM Narasimha Rao took at a crucial moment. He did so in greetings he sent to Benazir Bhutto from New York, ostensibly under pressure from the US. His ingenuity was put to the severest test to explain a major change in policy. He managed to convince the country that Kashmir was included only to discuss terrorism in J&K, but subsequent developments showed that Pakistan used the agenda item to try to extract concessions from India. Rao paid heavily for his act of statesmanship. Every government that seeks a settlement beyond managing the status quo will have a tightrope to walk on.
The most recent government effort to salvage the gains of the Track II dialogue by tweaking a few words in its statement to Parliament was the most eloquent example of the tight leash placed on it by the people. The opposition may have exploited it politically, but the entire nation felt uncomfortable with the unfamiliar language used. The nation was convinced that the terrorists were part of the ISI. In one stroke, the government lost credibility, even arousing suspicions it was not on the same page with the armed forces. It was also unclear as to why the government believed that it could have a deal with the civilian government in Pakistan against the wishes of the latter's powerful armed forces. The "mantras" developed over the years to react to Pakistani actions cannot be altered, even with good intentions. What the country expected was an unambiguous statement on the identity of the culprits and a strong affirmation of the right to self-defence. To imply that even a limited engagement is ruled out is to decimate the value of the arms we have accumulated.
The first step necessary for any serious dialogue with Pakistan is an acknowledgment by Pakistan of the imperatives of normalcy in political relations and cooperation in trade and economic activities. There should also be convincing signs that the terrorist outfits have been dismantled. A smokescreen of dialogue simply gives Pakistan legitimacy and an opportunity to seek financial resources.
Recent events have once again revealed that no consensus exists in India to establish peace with Pakistan at any cost. The distrust of Pakistan transcends the religious divide. The existence of a China-Pakistan nexus cannot be wished away. The mandate that the government enjoys as of now is to manage the relationship with the least damage to lives and property, and to establish an image abroad of sweet reasonableness and willingness to engage in a dialogue in an atmosphere of peace. Any change will have to wait for a more propitious moment.
The writer, a former ambassador and governor for India of the IAEA, is executive vice-chairman, Kerala State Higher Education Council