Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Daily Times Editorial Nov 27, 2014

Ball toss On his way to Kathmandu, Nepal, for the 18th Summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif tossed the ball of restarting the stalled Pakistan-India dialogue into the latter’s court. He objected to the unilateral cancellation by India of the foreign secretary-level talks that were due to take place in August but which New Delhi cancelled in a huff over the Pakistan High Commissioner to India’s meeting with the Kashmir Hurriyet Conference leaders. The PM said Pakistan was disappointed at the unilateral cancellation of talks that had been agreed by the two PMs when he attended Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony. In the context of the 30-year-old SAARC’s progress as a body of eight member countries of South Asia, Nawaz Sharif said the organisation had failed to live up to its potential given South Asia’s huge resources. Unfortunately, he said, differences and rivalries amongst the member countries continued to present obstacles to SAARC coming up to the level of other regional groupings in the world, let alone coming up to the expectations of the 1.5 billion people who inhabit the region. To put the matter in perspective, trade amongst the SAARC members at present is a paltry $ 3 billion, with connectivity through road, rail, telecommunications, energy, etc, still the stuff of dreams. Further, although Pakistan plans to set up three land ports to facilitate trade with its neighbours, it has been unable so far to offer India Non-Discriminatory Market Access (NDMA) status (despite India having conferred Most Favoured Nation status on Pakistan in the 1990s). The trade normalisation process with India is at a standstill because of recent tensions emanating from the exchanges of firing on the Line of Control and Working Boundary. The original 1,963 trade items on the Negative List (NL) have by now been reduced to 1,209. However, only 137 items are allowed through Wagah border. NDMA requires elimination of the NL on the Pakistan side and South Asia Free Trade Agreement Sensitive List on the Indian side. The present political atmosphere does not seem promising for progress in these matters for the foreseeable future. While Kashmir remains the main hurdle in an improvement in ties between Islamabad and New Delhi, it is also undeniable that there is no other way to make progress on this and all other issues except through a sustained bilateral dialogue. India, since the Simla Accord of 1972, has been extraordinarily sensitive to and irritated by any attempt to take the Kashmir issue to any multilateral forum, including the UN. Obviously the mention of Kashmir in international forums is an embarrassment for India’s ambition to be recognised as a world power. However, India must realise that this problem will not go away by merely repeating ad nauseam the mantra that Kashmir is an intrinsic part of India, not the least because despite its having been put on the backburner by the powers that be at the UN, it raises its head every time India wants to make its pitch for great power status. We have long argued in this space that New Delhi needs to engage with the Kashmiri leadership to find a way out of the long running cycle of insurgency, resistance and repression that has so damaged life in the disputed territory and extended indefinitely the life of fitfully recurring tensions between Pakistan and India. And that implies that the Modi government’s effort to get the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ruling at the Centre into power in J&K through the current staggered elections in the State is not the best way forward. For one, the prospects of the BJP, even with manoeuvring alliances with and splits within rival parties, may still not be enough to win it a majority in the 87-seat Assembly. The BJP hardly has a presence in the Valley, and may be relying more on the predominantly Hindu area of Jammu to get a toehold and, as many fear, attempt to change the special status of J&K enshrined in the Indian constitution as Article 370. Modi has proved a hardliner as far as the relationship with Pakistan is concerned. Therefore the chances of a meeting in Kathmandu between the two PMs, and indeed the prospects for a resumption of the stalled dialogue are mired in uncertainty.

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