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In Pakistan, Chidambaram to face stark choices

June 22, 2010 19:28 IST

The home minister's visit can either open the path to a serious re-engagement or regress us to the rhetoric of the last 12 years, writes K C Singh.

Home Minister P Chidambaram's visit to Pakistan on June 26, for the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation home ministers' conference, will wrestle with the ghost of 26/11. The foreign secretary accompanies him to watchfully steer his bilateral interaction with his counterpart, Rahman Malik, indicted by a court, promptly pardoned by President Asif Ali Zardari and now bereft of credibility.

More dossiers have been handed over, with material from (prime accused in the 26/11 attacks) Ajmal Kasab's trial. Leaks are already aplenty about what Chidambaram shall or shall not do. Asking for access to Lashkar-e-Tayiba co-founder Zaki ur Rehman Lakhvi via a television channel will, however, only get Pakistan's tail up.

The Sharm el-Sheikh misstep raised questions about the wisdom of unilateral pacifism in dealing with Pakistan. Similar anxiety had followed the 2006 Mumbai train bombings. The anti-terror mechanism was then devised to enable the resumption of dialogue. Since the 26/11 outrage, the government's keenness to re-engage Pakistan has encountered the public's desire for tangible action by Pakistan on the India-specific terror network. Chidambaram has positioned himself closer to the public mood rather than the peace constituency led by the prime minister. His visit thus would be closely watched. He has three obvious options: to express satisfaction at Pakistani action against 26/11 perpetrators; to hedge by recognising the action so far taken while asking Pakistan to cast the net wider; or simply regret the lackadaisical response, as he has in the past.

Only a categorical good character certificate from him can enable External Affairs Minister S M Krishna, when he visits Pakistan in July, to flag off the composite dialogue.

The composite dialogue, divined on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in 1998 by then prime ministers A B Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif, is an admixture of confidence-building measures and disputes. The dialogue has yielded mixed results.

On the positive side, the ceasefire has held, differences have narrowed on Sir Creek and Siachen and new formulations attempted on Kashmir besides opening up cross-LoC trade and bus traffic. On the other hand, terror acts grew bolder and more sophisticated and Pakistan has been unwilling, when we dealt with a general, or unable, when we dealt with an elected government, to uproot the terror network. A complete rethink of our Pakistan strategy is thus called for.

First, the home minister's visit to Pakistan. Issues like access to Lakhvi etc are operational issues best dealt with at the official level. He should make concrete suggestions on the issue of terrorism. Firstly, he should seek the immediate negotiation of a Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Treaty so that evidence and witnesses from either side can be used by the other. If Pakistan prefers, a Saarc Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty can be operationalised. Secondly, there should be a clear undertaking that no citizen of either country would be allowed to publicly abet the threat or use of violence against the other. Thirdly, the grant of visas to businessmen, students or group tours should be made easier and, in fact, encouraged. Why cannot there be day tours between Amritsar and Lahore? The home ministry is headed the other way mandating prior approval for all visas.

The 18th Amendment to the Pakistan Constitution, it is said, gives power back to the Parliament and the cabinet in Pakistan. I was in Pakistan June 2-5 for a Pugwash-sponsored Track-II Indo-Pak meet. Islamabad is a fortress, Zardari is invisible, army chief General Ashfaq Kayani is mulling his own extension, Nawaz Sharif marking time in Raiwind hoping the Supreme Court ousts Zardari and the US exits Afghanistan before he makes a bid and, surprisingly, his brother Shahbaz is a failure as Punjab chief minister. There are power cuts, price rise and insecurity. The Economist this week quips: "Don't blame the army for all Pakistan's problems. Just most of them."

Pakistan is crying for leadership that can take on the militant's narrative, appear unbending before the US and solve the problems of illiteracy and joblessness. Complex bilateral disputes between nations need more than statesmanship for resolution. They need the polities in the two countries to be harmoniously centred around a national consensus which the peace constituencies can tap into. It is today not so in Pakistan; let the reader judge if it is so in India. Two leaders in West Asia defied this principle (President Anwar Sadat of Egypt and PM Yitzhak Rabin of Israel) and lost their lives without gaining peace.

India thus needs to rebalance the agenda which Krishna can carry to Islamabad in July. While the CBMs can be aggressively pushed, the disputes need to be calibrated with Kashmir moved down the list. New issues seeking attention are water and Afghanistan. Pakistan's public discourse on water has been ill-informed and provocative. Even Let founder Hafiz Saeed has embraced it. A pro-active engagement to dispel disinformation is necessary.

Afghanistan has the potential for either Indo-Pak cooperative action or a clash of interests, leading to another civil war. At any rate these are today's issues. Therefore, the home minister's visit can either open the path to a serious re-engagement or regress us to the rhetoric of the last 12 years.

K C Singh is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry.

Courtesy: The Asian Age

K C Singh