Two Visits, One Message
By Tridivesh Singh Maini
November 16-22, 2012
There have been a myriad of positive developments in India-Pakistan relations recently. Amongst them, two that stand out are the visits of state delegations from Indian Punjab and Bihar to Pakistan.
Chief Minister of Bihar Visits Mohenjodaro with his delegation
From November 5 to 9, the deputy chief minister of Punjab, Sukhbir Singh Badal, and then from November 9 to 16, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, a likely future prime minister of India, visited Pakistan.
Both are part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. C Rajamohan, in an article titled, Ambassadors to Pakistan, (November 12) highlights this interesting point: "Badal's Akali Dal and the Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal (United) are both allies of the BJP." Their embrace of Pakistan stands in contrast to the BJP's reflexive hawkishness.
Apart from the fact that their visits reveal the increasing influence of states on Indian foreign policy, both visits were fascinating for a number of reasons.
If one were to look at the tangible outcomes of Sukhbir Badal's Lahore trip, first of all it reiterated the yearning in East Punjab for close ties with West Punjab, and the warm reception he received on the other side of the border clearly revealed the point that this feeling is not unrequited. Second, Sukhbir raised a gamut of issues - religious, economic and cultural - during his visit. Third, it was decided that a joint business council should be set up for the two provinces. This decision was taken during the course of the November 6 India-Pakistan roundtable and is important to ensure that the ideas discussed during the visit can actually be implemented.
It was refreshing to see that both Sukhbir Badal and his host, the dynamic Chief Minister of Punjab Shahbaz Sharif, jointly inaugurated the Punjab youth festival and the Indo-Pak 'dosti cup'. The latter also accepted Sukhbir's invitation for attending the Second World Kabaddi Cup Final in December in East Punjab. This importance being given to Kabaddi on both sides is welcome because for long traditional games have been relegated to the sidelines due to the popularity of other games such as cricket.
Kabaddi is extremely popular on both sides of the divide, especially the Punjabs, and like the recently held Asia Cup in Lahore, the Kabaddi Cup in 2011 was watched with immense interest in Pakistan, and the commentary in Punjabi was also appreciated.
Apart from this, the Indian Punjab Deputy CM, who paid obeisance at Nankana Sahib and Dera Sahib, also took up the demands of Sikh pilgrims, including a straightforward visa free pilgrimage from Dera Baba Nanak (Indian Punjab) to Kartarpur Sahib (Pakistan Punjab) - where Guru Nanak Dev spent the last few years of his life - through the Kartarpur religious corridor. The distance between the Gurdwaras is 3 kilometres, yet pilgrims from Indian Punjab have to travel all the way to New Delhi to secure a visa. This demand raised by Sukhbir Singh was extremely important as religious pilgrimages have proven to be a solid CBM and did not stop even during times of immense tension.
If one were to examine Nitish's visit, which included Karachi and Islamabad in addition to Lahore, it too had some very fascinating features. First of all, the Bihar CM's visit began with Karachi which has a large population of Bihari origin. Second, Nitish, like Sukhbir Badal, referred to the common culture and heritage of both countries during his speeches and interactions with the media. He made it a point to visit the historical Sadho Belo temple near Sukkur, the Indus Valley Civilization ruins of Mohenjodaro near Larkana, and Taxila. Third, Nitish, like Sukhbir Badal, focused on issues of relevance to the common man.
Anita Joshua said in a story for The Hindu (Nitish wins hearts in Pakistan, narrates 'Bihar growth story', November 10): "Taking the India-Pakistan dialogue beyond the foreign policy discourse and Track II interactions to nut-and-bolt governance issues at the provincial level, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar on Saturday captured the attention of Sindh's political class with an easy narration of the `Bihar growth story' and repeated underscoring of the shared history and heritage of the two countries."
In conclusion, one of the crucial problems of Indo-Pak relations has been its top-down approach, in the context of government-to-government interactions, where New Delhi and Islamabad have not given states the necessary importance they deserve. C Rajamohan in Ambassadors to Pakistan is right in pointing out that "Even before Badal crossed the border at Wagah, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar was arriving to a warm welcome in Karachi. That neither of these visits has got much attention in Delhi underlines how out of touch the 'national' establishment is with the 'regional' imperatives shaping India's foreign policy."
It is imperative to build on a relationship where we highlight the common past, while also fleshing out the benefits of a good relationship. Both Sukhbir and Nitish managed to do this.
CBMs have failed to expand beyond a few areas and certain strata of the society. The issues taken up during both the visits have been a refreshing change in that sense.
And finally, both visits have one message: the provinces in both the countries are ready for peace, and it is time for the national capitals to push the envelope.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based columnist