By Mariana Baabar
CHANG MAI, Thailand: Indian and Pakistani delegates discussed and debated for two days the significance of a new government in New Delhi and the opportunities it creates for Indo-Pak relations, particularly in trade and economic integration-and peace and security in Afghanistan.
The participants were brought together at the 14th Chaophaya Dialogue, an Indo-Pakistan Track-2 in Chang Mai, organised by The Jinnah Institute and the Australia India Institute in Melbourne.
While acknowledging Modi’s legitimacy conferred upon him by the people of India, Pakistan brought to the table the fact that the ball was now in Modi’s court and he had to take the first of several steps to ensure that he is willing to take bilateral relations to a new high.
After all even Nawaz Sharif was reluctant to publicly acknowledging the presence of Modi’s emissaries in April this year in Lahore and Islamabad (in the midst of the election campaign), because of Modi’s unpopularity, which was at its height during spring.
Yet, Pakistanis rose to the occasion when Modi’s invite came for the oath taking ceremony and it was “Go, Sharif go”, with hardliners on the fringe, best ignored.
Narendra Modi is no ordinary prime minister, complete with a controversial past that cannot be wished away in a hurry, his choice of bureaucrats handling the country’s internal and external security, still being debated in the region. But if the reaction of Indian delegates at the recently held “longest consistently running Indo-Pak Track-2,” was anything to go by, these former civil and military bureaucrats, parliamentarians, policy experts and media persons will certainly have to come to terms with this reality and stop being so sensitive to what has been brilliantly documented by the Indian media.
There was little appetite for the ‘others’ view about a former spook, Ajit Doval as National Security Adviser, (certainly a far cry from the very intellectual and thinker Shiv Shanker Menon) and any criticism saw meaningful glances, nods and chits passed on to those on the panel!
What if another Mumbai happens, was a question also heard loud and clear by the Pakistani delegates who did not shy away from the fact that the Punjabi jihadis was still a force to be reckoned with, and certainly time for the umbilical cords to be snipped away. With time and strengthening of democracy, the military would slowly wean away from absolute power to correct the civil-military imbalance.
Yet it was an Indian delegate who acknowledged the fact that after a long gap in relations the recent elections in both countries have thrown up “evenly matched governments’.
Perhaps also for the first time one sees two hands on prime ministers with little patience with the red tape of their bureaucracies that the delegates nudged the two leaders to graduate from letter writing according to one recommendation to take, “steps for additional confidence-building measures (CBMs) to lessen the trust deficit, particularly the establishment of a hotline linking the two PMs”.
Encouraged by the recent meeting of the two DGMOs another recommendation suggested, “meetings between the two army chiefs as well as the heads of intelligence agencies and more frequent interaction between DGMOs”.
It was refreshing to hear voices across the table which pointed out that Modi’s reaction during a crisis would not necessarily be ‘muscular’ as he does not have to prove anything, and instead will take “a level headed approach”.
Doval, no doubt has done his homework that any ‘muscular’ response would receive a befitting response across the LOC, and for this reason there is also thinking amongst those that guide policies that Modi will bow to a policy which points towards “understanding of smart power an integrated approach that will best serve India”.
Pakistanis also heard about not only the Congress ‘missing the bus in Kashmir’ but also fears of the Indian Muslim population,” the largest minority in the world”, for whom Modi’s victory lap was “more of a shock as their worst fears have come true”.
While the Indian army now considers the issue of Siachin as a cut and dried case from which it will not budge, a proposal worth pondering upon is revisiting the 2003 ceasefire agreement on the LOC which has certainly not held in these past two years.
A suggestion which needs to be pondered over is to “create norms of necessary crisis management structure jointly which will detail rules of do and don’ts and standard operating procedure”.
Already, the two sides are jointly working to fine tune LOC trade after the incident of alleged narcotic trafficking.Trade between the two countries was agreed upon as one area, which would see quick progress with the award of MFN not too far away.
Another recommendation hoped that “the Commerce Ministers would use the opportunity provided by the meeting of SAFTA Ministerial Council in Thimpu in July 2014, to arrive at an early conclusion of discussions on the subject”.
While no bones were made about India’s ties with the future government in Kabul with what was almost a war cry, “India’s involvement inside Afghanistan will continue till the Afghans stop us”.
But there was an agreement that with the withdrawal of ISAF troops and with uncertainty still looming large over Pakistan’s western borders, both sides “expressed the hope that a smooth political transition would lead to a peaceful and stable Afghanistan”.
There was realisation that there was room within this ‘uncertainty’ for a recommendation, “that India and Pakistan should commit themselves to non-interference in the internal affairs of Afghanistan and urged that Afghanistan should not allow the use of its soil for actions prejudicial to peace and security in the region”.
For the media persons at the table it was indeed heartening that after Pakistan expelled two Indian journalists which now brings presence of correspondents in each country to nil, a recommendation adopted, “urged the two governments to liberalise the visa regime for students, academics and journalists, in particular for correspondents to be stationed in each other’s capitals”.