People power can make peace between India and Pakistan

It is unfortunate that Minister of State for External Affairs Shashi Tharoor hijacked a successful trip by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Saudi Arabia. Tharoor's remark that Saudi Arabia could be an interlocutor for talks between New Delhi and Islamabad from the soil of Saudi Arabia itself was indeed embarrassing.

I concede that Tharoor is indiscreet and does not yet know the ropes of diplomacy or politics. But I suspect that his observation was not off his own bat. Somewhere, somehow, he got the impression that the Prime Minister would go along with him. True, an interlocutor is not a mediator. But he participates in talks.

Tharoor's remark may well have been a trial balloon. Apparently, it did not work due to a strong reaction against it in the country. India's enunciated policy after the Simla Conference in 1972 has been to talk to Pakistan, without involving a third party. Was there a rethinking? Whatever the import of Tharoor's observation, it gives oxygen to the February 25 dead dialogue between the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan.

Islamabad's reaction to Tharoor's remark was on the expected lines: it is ready for talks without conditions. This throws light on the February 25 talks in New Delhi. It means that Pak foreign Secretary Salman Bashir found himself constricted in talks. No doubt, Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao made it clear to Bashir that the talks would be confined to terrorism. But Bashir touched all points, including Kashmir and water, although not at great length. Yet the whole dialogue was cursory as if the two sides had to go over an exercise.

The talks must have been a formality because a few hours later I found both foreign secretaries sitting separately, engaged in an animated discussion, at the Pakistan House in Delhi for dinner. There was no recrimination, no rhetoric, no raising of voice. They talked about confidence-building measures and conciliation. Both foreign secretaries were a picture of understanding.

This is how the two sides behave when they are relaxed and normal and when they have no agenda to sell, no government message to convey, no gaze of publicity, no anxiety to say what will go down well back home. In fact, the Indians and the Pakistanis are the best of friends when they are not talking to each other.

However, the talks which were resumed even after one and a half years show that both countries are prisoners of mistrust and hostility. The reason why the two remain distant is their inability to overcome prejudice and bias that they have nourished against each other for decades. True, India refused to have the "composite talks" which were broken in the wake of terrorists' attack in Mumbai. But was the use of that particular phrase necessary? It only underscores the point that they cannot get out of the corner in which they have painted themselves.

King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz (R) of Saudi Arabia shaking hands with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during their meeting in Riyadh

However, both looked like having an understanding that they would conclude the meeting at the stage of talks, without in any way breaking or suspending them. Two foreign secretaries did not know what their political masters contemplated for the future. Still, if the foreign secretaries had fixed the date for the next meeting in Islamabad, the people on both sides would have taken a positive view of the talks.

How far Bashir could go was known to him because before arriving in New Delhi, he had met President Asif Zardari, Prime Minister Yousuf Reza Gilani and the army high-ups. Bashir was surprised by India's allegation of involvement by the two Pakistan serving majors in the 26/11 carnage. So was Nirupama by the charge that New Delhi was involved in Baluchistan.

The arrest of Hafiz Sayeed, the Laskhar-e-Tayyiba chief, is New Delhi's criterion to judge Pakistan's sincerity in fighting against terrorists who are reportedly operating in India. His latest ultimatum of war to India irritates New Delhi. It concedes that the law courts in Pakistan are independent but wonders why he is free to indulge in war cries against a neighbouring country.

What may have made Bashir, otherwise suave and soft-spoken, lose his cool at the news conference was the strong message that National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon gave him. Menon reportedly minced no worlds in accusing Pakistan of sending terrorists to India as part of Islamabad's state policy. He repeated many a time that he was the Prime Minister's adviser.

Since the meeting with Menon was before the news conference, Bashir did not maintain the equanimity which he showed during the talks with Rao. Bashir's words like 'Don't lecture us' were probably meant for Menon. Yet Bashir's observation that India's dossier against Sayeed was a "literature" was indiscreet. Bashir was quiet when he met the National Security Adviser. Was Menon conveying the mind of New Delhi? I have my doubts because Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is considered a dove. He reiterated at Riyadh that he was willing to go the extra mile to make up with Pakistan.

Since the Manmohan Singh government is increasingly on the defensive because of abnormal price rise and inflation, I do not think that it is in no position to take any bold initiative on Pakistan. The opposition, led by the BJP, has created an atmosphere where it is difficult for New Delhi to break the status quo, either on Pakistan or Kashmir. This should not surprise either Islamabad which is prepared for a long haul or Washington which is more focused on Kabul and Islamabad than New Delhi.

The silver lining is Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's reiteration that there was no option to talks and that the two countries must come to an agreement to live like good neighbours. In the last 62 years since independence, both the countries have trodden the same path again and again, knowing well that it reaches nowhere. Maybe, both have no fresh ideas to pursue. Maybe, both have come round to accept their inability to solve the problems which confront them. For example, were they to pick up courage, do they have a solution on Kashmir?

Perhaps the civil society on both sides can help. Some persons who have been working on the improvement of relations between India and Pakistan for years can meet to pick each other's brain to see if they have some new ideas on which they agree. The proposals made by them may change the situation which remains frozen in helplessness.

The governments on both sides would find it difficult to reject the suggestions if they have the unanimous backing. If these persons fail to arrive at a consensus they would put a question mark against their like mindedness. They would probably prove to both New Delhi and Islamabad that there was no go from a wider people-to-people contact to remove the mistrust which has got ingrained because of acts of omission and commission of the two governments.

Ultimately, the pressure of the public on both sides will make the governments relent. Are the persons, committed to rapprochement between India and Pakistan, ready to go through fire and water to prove their credentials?

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