21 September 2004

The logic of unilateral concessions

21 September 2004
The Hindu


The logic of unilateral concessions

By Siddharth Varadarajan

NEW DELHI, SEPT. 20. Six years ago, it took a meeting between Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif in New York to get the India-Pakistan composite dialogue process off the ground. Two rounds — mostly unproductive — have been held since then, the last one earlier this month. There have also been one war and one near war during this period. When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and General Pervez Musharraf meet on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session on Friday, both men will face the difficult challenge of ensuring that the next round produces some tangible outcome.

The last round may have been fruitless but it allowed New Delhi and Islamabad to demonstrate to their people that they had not compromised the "national interest" in any way. Pakistan promised to study India's famous "72 proposals" — which cleverly ranged from expanded travel and trade links to the holding of philatelic exhibitions and the "exchange of slides" — but did not respond in the absence of forward movement on Kashmir. On its part, India parried the Pakistani proposal for the Kashmir issue to be tackled in an accelerated manner by special envoys.

But if the first round required the reiteration of stated positions, the process will not survive another round of the same. Indeed, if the second round, which will run from December this year to February 2005, produces no concrete progress under any of the eight subject-heads, the bilateral dialogue will likely collapse. How to ensure this does not happen is the main task facing Dr. Singh and Gen. Musharraf.

Going by the easing of visa norms for certain categories of Pakistani visitors announced by the Ministry of External Affairs on Saturday, it seems the Indian side has come around to the view that unilateral concessions are a good thing. Rigid reciprocity had allowed Pakistan to implement its `progress on Kashmir first' approach. India now realises it has a stake in "normalising" relations with Pakistani civil society — journalists, doctors, lawyers, businessmen, students — and will benefit enormously even from a one-sided relaxation of visa rules. The same is true for trade in many categories of goods, and especially energy. The main point is that the unilateral gestures must be followed through and not regarded as mere propaganda points.

While these one-sided concessions will help India quicken the pace of bilateral relations somewhat, the issue of Kashmir also has to be faced up to squarely. In the first round, India put eight proposals on the table, including the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus, but none of these touched upon the aspect which concerns Pakistan the most: the issue of J&K's "status."

Taking up Gen. Musharraf's formula of "negating unacceptable solutions," India has apparently now asked Pakistan to spell out the universe of status outcomes it feels might be acceptable to both sides. This discussion is being conducted through the regular backchannel contact between the National Security Adviser, J.N. Dixit, and Gen. Musharraf's principal secretary, Tariq Aziz.

Though this process will likely be long and contentious, speculation is predictably mounting about radical proposals that may be exchanged when the two leaders meet. Time magazine, for instance, has reported that Dr. Singh will offer "adjustments" of the Line of Control involving a shift of the de facto border several miles eastwards. An official spokesman on Monday described this report as totally false. The magazine also said this proposal was first mooted by the Vajpayee Government in its talks with Pakistan — a claim a former highly-placed official of that Government told The Hindu was "bunkum."

But if LoC adjustments are not on the menu, are there other Kashmir-centric proposals that Dr. Singh could make? The use of special travel documents by passengers on the proposed intra-Kashmir bus could be one. There is also a proposal to allow all political trends in J&K, "Azad Kashmir" and the "Northern Areas" of Gilgit-Baltistan — whether pro-India, pro-Pakistan or pro-azadi — the opportunity to meet on a regular basis so as to help the Governments of India and Pakistan come up with proposals for the settlement of the issue.

In all likelihood, however, Dr. Singh will not get into specifics. The emphasis will be on getting the optics right, reassuring the General that India is not soft-pedalling on Kashmir and keeping the option of unilateral concessions as a lever to speed up the process whenever a roadblock is hit.

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