Mr. Vajpayee has indicated that his latest peace attempt with Pakistan is his last. In keeping with the poet in him the practicalities of the ‘hand of friendship’ were not addressed. As with the Lahore and Agra Summits, inadequate preparation has informed his initiative launched at the first public rally addressed by a PM in Srinagar since the outbreak of the militancy in Kashmir. Thus the best that can be expected is a détente, rather than a rapprochement. The resulting concessions by India and Pakistan leaves the impression as being tactical moves in positioning themselves favorably with their mutual interlocutor, the USA fresh from its victory in the Iraq War. Furthermore, the Prime Minister’s hint at ‘retirement’ implies that should the move fail, ascendance of hardliners led by the ‘PM in waiting’ Mr Advani, will be legitimised in face of Pakistani recalcitrance. A reversion to a military predominant strategy can be predicted should the BJP return with a fresh mandate from next year’s national elections.

The first reservation with regard to the move is the questionable nature of the preparation preceding it. Widespread surprise greeted it not only in Islamabad but also in New Delhi. Only a month earlier, the Foreign and Defence Ministers had insisted on the suitability of Pakistan as a candidate state for ‘preemptive strikes’. With the question of ‘Pakistan’ as answer to the question ‘After Iraq, Who?’ receding, India was left with little option but to engage it, lest it be forced to do so not on its terms by the renewed interest the US had promised to take in the resolution of the Kashmir issue. In the event, the slovenly nature of the concessions by both states indicates that this is yet another initiative in the tradition of Lahore and Agra Summits based on the hope of proving third time lucky.

The difficulty arises in the myth that national security requires a ‘consensus’. Therefore parties have a broadly similar line, each wary of being branded ‘anti-national’. This stifles politically imaginative engagement with such issues.
The second problem is that there is little of their entrenched national position that the two states can concede. Only cosmetic changes in stance can be expected. While India appears to have given up the unrealistic posture of ‘no talks without an end to cross border terrorism’, Pakistan has gone a step further than its moves last year under Indian military pressure to ban the largest terrorist outfit, the Hizbul Mujahedeen from operating out of POK territory. In both cases, only time will prove if both states are playing for time. In India’s case one more summer of relatively low-key militancy would enable it wrest the initiative comprehensively. For Pakistan, US lead pressure against legitimizing terrorism as an acceptable means for self-determination movements is temporarily deflated. Even if talks follow, their agenda and outcome can only be peripheral to resolution of the Kashmir issue.

Last is the question of the timing. Presently, only the moral authority of a waning Mr. Vajpayee’s appears to undergrid the initiative. General Musharraf remains persona non grata on account of his Kargil association and his media coup at Agra. The internal political equations in Pakistan have yet to stabilize under the onslaught of the fundamentalist alliance, the MMA. With India due for elections next year, Pakistan would prefer a wait and watch policy. Thus only a temporary reversion to business as usual from the depths to which relations plunged last year can be expected.

It must be remembered that the seeming normalcy of restored flights, bus and rail services and High Commissioners has been rudely disrupted earlier. The next time, consequences could well be worse, with both states having internalized over time respective ‘lessons’ from the near war situation of last year. It cannot even be said with conviction that the move carries the hopes of millions as there is a fairly vocal and religiously deluded segment on both sides not averse to continuance of estranged relations, if not thirsting for a military tryst itself.

Both the BJP and Mr. Vajpayee have let out and retracted a trial balloon on going into the next elections with Mr. Advani as a coequal mascot. Should the peace initiative fail, its fallout does not contaminate Mr. Advani, and this is a political advantage. The failure can instead be used as an election issue, lending credibility to the hard-line alternative. The strong challenge being prepared by the emergent Congress has pushed the BJP further into a corner wherein a replication of the Gujarat campaign appears increasingly appealing. The hard line towards Pakistan and Kashmir helps in coupling BJP’s fraught approach towards minority management with national security for both ideological and instrumental reasons. Thus there are vested interests in ensuring the move fails, even if it does not collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. It is fair to believe that the initiative will last only as long as Mr. Vajpayee’s current tenure.

Only strategic moves arising from paradigm shifts can bring about purposeful movement away from illusions of ‘normalcy’. This can come about if national security does indeed figure as an election issue,in other words there need not be consensus on it. The difficulty arises in the myth that national security requires a ‘consensus’. Therefore parties have a broadly similar line, each wary of being branded ‘anti-national’. This stifles politically imaginative engagement with such issues. The price is that unresolved, these remain as ticking time-bombs, such as the Kashmir issue proved on Dec 13, 2001.

In this regard, it is unlikely that the Congress can better anything offered by Mr. Vajpayee. This explains the observation oft made regarding Mr. Vajpayee being in the ‘wrong party’. The Congress’ resort to soft Hindutva during the Gujarat elections indicates the political limits it operates under in a polity defined in the main by the ruling party and its right wing affiliates. Therefore, both parties can be expected to have similar hard-nosed approaches to Pakistan. The only advantage the Congress could enjoy if it dislodges the BJP is with respect to having a Congress Chief Minister in Srinagar as envisaged in the Common Minimum Program. This would help in the convergence of the Pakistan and Kashmir questions, presently suffering a compartmentalized approach along the foreign and internal security dimensions respectively.

With regard to Kashmir, there is one joker in the pack that bears watching, namely the so-called ‘Chenab Plan’ that has consistently been resurfacing over the past few years. The Plan essentially is a trifurcation of the state along religious lines, with the Muslim majority area to the north of River Jhelum being given greater autonomy. The perceived advantages are that the Jammu and Ladhak are removed from the yoke of Kashmiri domination. Autonomy, short of abdication of sovereignty, will defuse internal liberal criticism as also placate the international community. Pakistan would have something to show for its twelve year long fishing expedition in India’s troubled waters inducing it to cut the terrorist supply lines. The main gainer will however be the Hindutva platform. The logic advanced by its votaries will be that with the Muslims having been granted a second partition, there would be no scope for further ‘appeasement’. This could help in entrenching the Hindu vote bank. The fact that this has the support of the Hindutva inclined segments in Jammu cannot be overlooked.

An essential would be acceptance by Pakistan of the LC as IB, yet another current idea in the air. Thus far this has proven inert on account of having nothing face saving to offer Pakistan. With additional autonomy devolving on Kashmir under the Chenab Plan, and the promise of a porous border, Pakistan cannot hope for a better deal. The futility of applying military pressure through its proxies on India is surely not lost on it. It also feels the need to grapple with its fundamentalists who thrive on the disturbed conditions in Kashmir. Therefore Pakistan can be expected to play along, irrespective of the implications of the idea for its coreligionist in India for whom it otherwise has had ample crocodile tears.

Admittedly, the BJP will prefer to pend such ‘solutions’ to a time when it has a mandate untrammeled by coalition partners, as surely it is positioning itself for over the remainder of Mr. Vajpayee’s tenure. In summation, it bears reiteration that Mr. Vajpayee's peace initiative is a tactical one that can at best yield ‘normalcy’ as outcome. The point is that ‘normalcy’ has proved a dangerous chimera and is extracting both a human and political price. The flirtation with the nuclear threshold of last year compels a more concerted search for strategic alternatives. Given that national security is not about to become a central issue anytime soon, strategic outcomes in terms of ‘rapprochement’ as against mere ‘détente’ implying demilitarization of LC, demobilization of bloated security forces, ending of the crime against environment called Siachen, retrieval of polity of both states from clutches of respective fundamentalists, nuclear arms control and people to people exchanges etc., will all have to await more dramatic developments.

The eternal hope is that such developments are politically generated and not compelled by the crossing of the nuclear threshold, either inadvertently or in panic or anger.