Saturday, March 26, 2011

Two and Only

Two and Only
By M J Akbar
By word : In India Today
March 25, 2011

Bob Hope, that great, late Hollywood philosopher, once described diplomacy as the art of describing Jane Russell without moving your hands. Such wisdom cannot be fully appreciated without a fond knowledge of Jane Russell's vital statistics, and Bob Hope had plenty of that. Jane was an actress who could, to put it mildly, stretch a blouse, and turned picking up unnecessary items from the floor into a tour de force: camera and cleavage had an excellent working relationship. Bob Hope used to introduce Jane Russell as the "two and only".

The art of India-Pakistan diplomacy is in quite the opposite mode: all hands and no Jane Russell.

India and Pakistan do not talk to each other; they talk at each other. Foreign secretary Nirupama Rao and her Pakistani counterpart Salman Basheer will confirm this truth when they meet again in a few days. The great secret of Indo-Pak talks is that there is nothing left to talk about.

Both countries are fully conscious of basic realities: that war is not an option for conflict resolution between nuclear powers. They also know that a frozen stalemate breeds seismic trigger points that can quickly go out of control, and escalation could suddenly take a quantum leap toward bristling missiles. They realise, even if they will not publicly admit it, that the geography of the Kashmir map cannot be changed and all rhetoric is designed for domestic sentiment, not international hard talk. This is more relevant to Pakistan than India, since India is content with the status quo and will accept it as the basis of an agreement. Pakistan cannot, officially, do so, but the much-whispered "Musharraf formula" recognised, in effect, that the only solution is dissolution of claims and institutionalisation of ground reality, perhaps by tweaking a phrase or two in any pact. Six decades of declared and undeclared war have not changed the boundary by six inches; and six more decades will not either. We do not have a signed piece of paper between India and Pakistan yet because the boringly obvious, that peace is the shortest route to muchneeded prosperity, is insufficient as a means of persuasion.

It would be a good idea, therefore, if Rao and Basheer stopped wasting time on bilateral issues. They could use the opportunity for social pleasantries, and there is always a decent government budget for interesting menus; the crisis that damaged, beyond repair, the Agra summit between Pervez Musharraf and Atal Bihari Vajpayee began over a breakfast that included eggs with a French name I can't pronounce. But since foreign secretaries meet for more than a gourmand's breakfast, here is an unsolicited suggestion.

They might have something useful, tangible and doable for their political masters if they set an agenda for an adjacent objective: how to convert SAARC into an antipoverty mechanism, and a fulcrum of ideas that establish dynamic economic relations through flexible, if not free, trade in goods, services and finance. India and Pakistan have trapped the SAARC nations in the vicious circle they have created through their partisan conflicts. As the old sufi saying goes, when you are caged by a vicious circle, draw a larger circle. SAARC is the larger circle through which the theme of the next decade can become a priority: the economic uplift of the hundreds of more than half a billion people crushed below the poverty line.

A second thought, worth considering over eggs and toast. There is a nuclear crescent arcing through the whole of Asia. Israel, Iran, Pakistan, India, China, Japan and Russia are nuclear powers. Japan does not possess nuclear weapons, but bombs are not the only danger, as should be obvious now. Radiation has no boundaries. Surely the moment has come for a summit on nuclear safety, and why should such a proposal not emanate through India-Pakistan collaboration? If these two antagonists make common cause, they will help create conditions for a new environment over far larger space than their own territories.

Existing disputes, however visceral, however old or new, do not have to become obstacles to cooperation where this is possible. India and Pakistan do not have to agree on an old sore like Kashmir, or a fresh spat like Afghanistan in order to eradicate poverty or protect the environment. All this, alas, is day-dreaming. The establishments of Delhi and Islamabad retreat into the comfort zone of the predictable at the first sign of a new idea. An open mind comes laden with risk, but risk can be minimised with thought and preparation.

As Bob Hope might have said while introducing this subcontinent to the world, India and Pakistan are the "two and only".

No comments: