By Seema Mustafa
June 7, 2013
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is once again exploring the possibility of visiting Pakistan, without raising too many hackles at home on the eve of general elections. The decision to send special envoy Satish Lambah to meet Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, as a first gesture, is clearly indicative of this long-pending desire. After all, Mr Lambah did not go all the way to Lahore to discuss the weather, or just congratulate Mr Sharif on his victory. The agenda was more substantive and one can expect both, New Delhi and Islamabad, now to work together to facilitate the visit.
However, this is not to say that it will happen. The Congress party is unable to take a decision when confronted with vocal opposition. And a prime ministerial visit to Pakistan has unfortunately been bogged in the mire of indecision, with the political opposition making it impossible for Prime Minister Singh to saunter across the borders without a specific programme and agenda. However, aware of the decided advantage of a relatively baggage-less government in Pakistan, Prime Minister Singh is once again talking of “good neighbourly relations” with Pakistan. He has also spoken of Prime Minister Sharif’s invitation to him to visit Pakistan (and vice versa) and while “no dates have been fixed “as yet, it is certainly not off the anvil.
There is some enthusiasm in India about the smooth democratic transition in Pakistan. The BJP is also not badly inclined towards Prime Minister Sharif, more because of his cordial relations with its leader and former Indian prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. So, speaking of today — in South Asia, the morrow always brings in a new dimension — Dr Singh can certainly move towards finalising dates for a state visit to Pakistan, without stirring the usual hornets’ nest. Of course, he might delay the decision, thereby opening it once again to circumstances.
A visit to Pakistan, of course, will achieve far less than it would have had Dr Singh been able to go there in the United Progressive Alliance’s first term in office, or at least at the beginning of the second term. However, in relations as twisted and fragile as between India and Pakistan, high level visits do soothe the environment and give new impetus to bilateral relations. It has been almost 10 years since a top-level visit to Pakistan, more stark, as the Indian prime minister has visited almost every country of import. It is, therefore, a matter of immense regret that strategic and political relations between two sovereign nations have been held hostage by vested interests on both sides, acquiring dimensions that make basic dialogue impossible. It is imperative in difficult times particularly, for governments to remain engaged and for heads of governments to ensure that tricky issues are discussed directly. After all, the visit to New Delhi recently by the Chinese premier, despite the bad blood over border incursions, went a long way in easing the strain and diluting the anger and hostility.
Dialogue is not the sign of the weak, but of the strong. It is only strong, secure governments that never hesitate to talk and create opportunities for a dialogue. Snide remarks and media wars cannot become a substitute for direct and sound diplomacy. It is thus important for Prime Minister Singh, regardless of the fact that he will not have much more time in office, to visit Pakistan and help institutionalise a dialogue that is more sustainable than what we have seen in the past. There have been several major changes in Pakistan that have started, and will start, impacting its strategic goals and choices and these will have to be factored in by us in India for what could be a new beginning.
There are strong lobbies on both sides of the border against improving relations with each other. But there are stronger, but less vocal, lobbies for peace. Governments can cower under threats from the first, or use the strength of the second to move forward towards better bilateral relations. In India, we allowed the first to coerce us into inaction, but it is time to break free and establish quick ties with the new democratic government that seems to be looking ahead with a strong mandate.
It remains to be seen whether Prime Minister Singh will have the courage and the foresight to strike while the iron is hot. Or whether he will allow opposition to cloud his desire and sit back at a time when a visit can still have a decisive and positive impact on relations between India and Pakistan.
Seema Mustafa is a consulting editor with The Statesman and writes widely for several newspapers in India