With his equanimity, persistence and reticence, Atal Bihari Vajpayee got further with Pakistan than any other Indian Prime Minister. In this piece in Business World of 4 March 2004, I applauded him and passed on a few ideas to work on.
Let us not be modest
Prime Minister’s Vajpayee’s visit to Pakistan has opened doors. He reached out to Pakistan many times before, every time to be repulsed. But this time the process has moved some way without breaking down in bad temper, rudeness and recrimination. Beginning last April with his speech in Srinagar, the Indian government has moved with deliberation. Since the SAARC meeting in January, the pace has picked up, but both sides are concentrating on the process, made well aware by past experience that there is no quick fix, no magic solution to their mutual problems. The joint secretaries in the foreign ministries of the two countries met on February 16 and 17, followed the next day by foreign secretaries. India now has a holiday season for serious talks since a government is stepping down and the shape of its successor will not be known till the elections are held. But the foreign secretaries have agreed to continue to work on opening up roads and rail tracks, and to meet again in May or June. That is when they will discuss Kashmir as well as nuclear weapons; and they will prepare the ground for a meeting of the foreign ministers in August.
Before the Agra summit in 2001, General Musharraf had insisted that there would be no preparations by bureaucrats, no previously agreed agenda, and that Vajpayee and he would spend the maximum time with each other. So it came to pass, and both regretted it. Having bitten off too much once, both sides have been shy. Caution is the key, process rules, and slowness has become a virtue.
This is how governments work; ponderous as elephants, distrustful of initiative and innovation. And where foreign policy is concerned, our government has historically worked badly – for decades locked in hostility towards the US, Pakistan and China, incapable of solving the simplest disputes such as the Sino-Indian border dispute. Vajpayee’s achievement is that his impetuosity has overcome this monumental inertia: it has repaired the deep rift with the US, taken the hostility out of relations with China – and finally brought Pakistan around to talking.
It would be a historic error if this flair, this willingness to take risks, this foolhardiness if you will, falls victim to bureaucratic caution. It is important that the larger objective of this entire exercise is not lost sight of. And that objective must be more ambitious than mere lack of war. It must be integration – economic, cultural and emotional. It must be to get so close that it no longer matters which side Kashmir falls on. The two countries have tried out separate development for over half a century; by doing so they have only fallen behind. If they were to stand together, they would carry far more weight in the world, and would have to spend far less in making a show of strength – for in a nuclearized world, force can only be for show.
What matters is not trains and buses, but the interflow of people. What matters is not so-called preferential trade agreements, but movement of goods across the borders. What matters is not so-called cultural exchanges, but exposure to each other’s cultural and intellectual life. What matters is not orderly contacts by courtesy of grandmother governments, but an uncontrolled flow of people, ideas and things.
And the way to achieve these great aims is to focus, not on instruments, but on the volume of interchange. Instead of negotiating the number of visas, the two countries should be defining classes of persons who would be able to travel without visas – businessmen, intellectuals, journalists, craftsmen, whatever. Instead of writing down which items can be traded in 2011, they should be defining why anything should not be traded. Instead of planning tariff reductions over a decade and more, they should agree to free a third of tradable goods from all restrictions every year. Both countries should agree to issue a large and rising number of student and work visas every year.
In India as in Pakistan, a war is being fought between the forces of autarchy and openness, bigotry and tolerance, inwardness and outwardness. Politicians of both countries have taken sides in this war, usually the wrong side. Despite their worst efforts, despite Ayodhya and jihad, India is far more open – and more confident – than a decade ago. It is in our interest to nudge Pakistan in the same direction. The prospects have never been brighter. After two attacks on his life, President Musharraf has lost his taste for subterranean violence. The exposure of nuclear brigandage emanating has suddenly narrowed Pakistan’s freedom of manoeuvre. Pakistanis recognize India’s better performance, and would love to emulate it. This is the time to demonstrate the superiority, not just of peace, but of brotherhood, not just of shaking hands, but of marching forward together.