Moment of Opportunity

As co-chairs of the Chaophraya dialogue between opinion makers from India and Pakistan, we are encouraged by reports of resumption of the official dialogue between Islamabad and New Delhi, and of a possible meeting between the two prime ministers on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September.

We believe, however, that it is also time for important gestures by the political leadership of the two countries to inject fresh momentum into the fragile peace process. An early visit to Pakistan by Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, would be one such gesture. While such a visit should not be burdened with the expectation of a grand strategic bargain at this point, as many summits tend to be, it should signal the need for a true reconciliation. The Singh visit to Islamabad should then be followed by a summit between the two heads of government meeting in New Delhi.

Both visits can be preceded or followed by a meeting in Islamabad of the Indian foreign minister, with his counterpart in Pakistan. This would provide space for confidence-building between the two countries and allow them to iron out a working agenda for ongoing talks on a calendar of unresolved and upcoming issues. There is a small window of opportunity in bilateral relations; and the leadership of the two countries must seize this opening.

India prides itself as the world’s largest democracy, while the people of Pakistan voted firmly for more democracy in the face of terrorist threats. An elected government has handed over power to a new one after a national election. A resumption of official visits to each others’ countries, at this historic moment, would signal the triumph of democracy in the region.

Unlike in the past, there is consensus among most major political parties in Pakistan on the need for improving relations with India. The outgoing federal government in Islamabad which leads the parliamentary opposition today, the PPP, is a strong proponent for talks. This gives Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif opportune space to consult with other political parties (including the PPP, PTI, ANP and MQM) to forge a national consensus on the need for a reconciliation with India with the leadership of key parties in settling on a viable timeline of confidence-building measures. To build support for an ongoing dialogue that pivots to peace, the Indian prime minister must also lead an all-party leaders’ delegation to Pakistan. The principal opposition party in India, the BJP, will likely not oppose such a move. In recent years, some of the boldest initiatives towards building peace in the region were supported by Atal Behari Vajpayee during the previous BJP-led coalition government.

Indian concerns about the lack of progress regarding the trial in Pakistan of the perpetrators of the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai mirror worries in Pakistan over the lack of progress over several bilateral issues. Many issues seemed to have been agreed upon, yet defy closure. Clearly, the current strategic stalemate has gone past its function of calming down post-crisis turbulence; it has begun to instead reinforce a dangerous drift in the will and momentum needed for peace.

The view that these issues should not stand in the way of sustained dialogue is not an isolated one among Track II interlocutors between India and Pakistan. In fact, last month at the 12th round of the Chaopraya dialogue which brought together parliamentarians, former government officials, generals, diplomats, academics and journalists from both our countries, the joint view was to press for moving away from the pause button and look for a new normal.

The menu for action forward on a reset does not need any reinvention. The recommendations from this round of the dialogue included the need to resume the back-channel dialogue on Jammu & Kashmir; active, not proforma, revival of the ministerial level India-Pakistan joint commission created in 1983, which should become a mandated official space for old and new problems to be cleared, such as visa, travel and communication ease; and the need for periodic dialogue between the two ministries of defence.

Leaps of faith have played a great role in building peace throughout history. Conservative and risk-averse bureaucracies have, however, systematically and deliberately underplayed the importance of such exchanges. After nearly 66 years of bilateral conflict, the resumption of dialogue at multiple levels, from the top to the joint secretary level could have a tremendous multiplier impact on a region bracing for multiple transitions. Islamabad has signalled more than once its interest in taking visits and negotiations forward. New Delhi has reciprocated but stopped short. It is time PM Singh moved away from the cold war straitjacket India-Pakistan relations have fallen into, and injected a new sense of hope in the people of the subcontinent.

For a real reconciliation between the people of the two countries, gestures are critically important. Indeed, contrary to orthodox wisdom in India, unilateral overtures towards Pakistan need not be a political liability. As the recent Australia India Institute-Lowy poll revealed, while an overwhelming majority of Indians identify Pakistan as a threat, nearly 90pc agree that ordinary people in both countries want peace, and a similar number believe that a real improvement in relations requires courageous leadership in both countries. More important, nearly 80pc felt that India should take the initiative in seeking peace with Pakistan.

The findings suggested that if Prime Minister Singh were to visit Pakistan and take the lead on a dialogue, he would have popular support at home. We believe that the time has come for the political class in both countries to make important choices that will spur peace for both India and Pakistan.

Sherry Rehman and Amitabh Mattoo are co-chairs of the Track II Chaophraya Dialogue. This article is being published simultaneously in The Hindu.

Twitter: @sherryrehman

Twitter: @amitabhmattoo

Coverage: DawnThe Hindu