India's Political Turmoil Hampers Peace with Pakistan
The Nation
April 13, 1997
After Indian prime minister Deve Gowda’s failure to win a vote of confidence in Lok Sabha, the politics of India is likely to become more uncertain. And the foremost causality of this unhappy development may be the normalization of Indo-Pak relations—a process which started recently after having been stalled for years, with great worldwide expectation for the end of a hostile climate in South Asia.

President Shankar Dayal Sharma may or may not ask either the Congress or the Bharatiya Janata Party to form the government. Since Congress, like BJP, the single largest party in Lok Sabha, does not seem to be able to muster up the required parliamentary strength to form its government, the Indians have no other option but to go for snap election, which, in itself, is no guarantee that their country will have a stable political regime.

By their very political standing, neither Congress (I) nor BJP is expected to perform better than they did in the June 1996 election. So is the case with United Front. There may be another hung parliament, another coalition government. India’s most serious development is the loss of public faith in politicians; something, which cannot be restored overnight. Several ethnically peculiar Indian states like Tamil Nadu hate the current centralization of state powers, a question on which the powers-that-be in New Delhi may not compromise in near future. The case of Held Kashmir is altogether different; for its majority people are up for freedom from the Indian federation.

Ethics in Indian politics are just missing. Only last month, a strange alliance was formed in Uttar Pradesh between two entirely diversified class-based parties, the BJP representing the upper caste Hindus and Bahujan Samaj Party of Kanshi Ram.

The BJP backed BSP leader Mayawati’s chief ministership in the state. Even at the intra-state level, political friction has assumed serious proportions. Karnatka and Andhra Pradesh are fighting over Almaatti Dam. Like Held Kashmir, India’s entire northeast is showing secessionist tendencies. It is but natural for any country embroiled in domestic political turmoil not to make courageous foreign policy moves, especially in areas domestically perceived to be controversial.

Thus, Islamabad had better forget that, in months ahead, New Delhi will equally respond to the bold initiatives it takes in settling any of the issues undermining India-Pakistan relationship.

In next few weeks, the main headache for the Indian leadership will be to prepare for snap election. And, if once again, the election produced a coalition government, then again just the Pakistani leadership, heading a stable political regime, will be taking the lead in the normalization process, as it has done since coming to power.

There is no credible evidence to prove that foreign secretary-level talks between India and Pakistan held in New Delhi in March compelled the Congress leadership to ditch Deve Gowda. Any such possibility, however, cannot be ruled out. For there should have been some reason why Gowda’s regime appeared to backtrack from the negotiating process.

Even before his election, prime minister Nawaz Sharif had expressed his willingness to talk to the Indians and normalize Pakistan’s relations with them. First the Indian leaders were reluctant. Both former prime minister Gowda and external affairs minister Inder Kumar Gujral stated publicly India would not compromise on Kashmir and, therefore, there was no question of this “core issue” to form a part of the agenda of Indo-Pak dialogue.

Later, when after his landslide election victory, Nawaz Sharif repeated his call for the start of the normalization process in his address to the nation, prime minister Gowda expressed Indian willingness to discuss all conflicting issues—obviously, including Kashmir. Then, the date for the foreign secretary-level talks was set. But, simultaneously, the Indians started hedging on the matter.

They first charged that Pakistan had sent a pilotless intruder into their airspace, which they claimed, was shot down. Then came their claim to have arrested a Major of the Indian Army who was allegedly spying for Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. If that was not enough, just a week before the start of the high-level official talks between the two countries, India accused Pakistan of building a tunnel across its borders with India to let its infiltrators enter Indian territory.

While India kept on hedging all these weeks; for its part, the new regime in Islamabad sustained its pro-normalization diplomatic initiative. Finally, foreign secretaries Shamshad Ahmed and Salman Haider met and discussed in a “friendly, candid and constructive” manner all the conflicting issues, including Kashmir.

And they pledged to meet again in Islamabad. This meeting was followed by a meeting over ‘breakfast’ between foreign ministers Gohar Ayub and I K Gujral in New Delhi earlier last week. Ayub was in Delhi to attend the foreign ministers’ meeting of member-states of the Non-Aligned Movement.

In the meeting, both agreed to resolve some trivial conflicts between their countries, such as repatriation of each other’s fishermen and extradition of drug-smugglers. United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan was also present at the NAM’s FMs’ meeting. Hailing India and Pakistan for resuming the dialogue for friendship, Annan offered foreign ministers Ayub and Gujral to come to New York to dine with him and talk to each other in his presence. Pakistan has accepted his offer. India has yet to react to it.

Will the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan meet according to the agreed schedule? And, if they met, would the Indian foreign secretary be willing this time to chalk out a clear-cut agenda for the next rounds of talks? In the first meeting, the Indians did not accept Pakistan’s proposal to form working groups to handle specific issues separately.

Because that’s how the normalization of Sino-Indian relations has taken place. And, in Male, would the next Indian prime minister be willing to negotiate peace boldly with his Pakistani counterpart, as the latter wished recently? Sharif had said on record in February that he would like to remove all travel restrictions that presently prevent direct contact between the people of the two countries. Given its worsening domestic political situation and uncertainties regarding the future of its existing federal framework, India may only disappoint Pakistan—where, as well, there is no guarantee that domestic political scenario for the current stable leadership will be as conducive in near future as to allow it to be bold on its India outlook.