Why Gujral must backtrack
The Nation
May 11 , 1997
Even if there was any public euphoria about the positive outcome of the scheduled meeting between prime ministers Nawaz Sharif and I. K. Gujral at SAARC’s Male Summit, it appears to have died down due to the uncompromising statements on Kashmir made recently by Gujral.

The Indian prime minister has said India will not move even an inch from its declared stand on the Kashmir issue—which is that Kashmir is not a disputed territory but an integral part of the Indian federation. Nothing much is, therefore, expected from the Male meeting between the two leaders, the first prime minister-level meeting between India and Pakistan after years: they may shake hands, amuse each other with their smiling faces, utter a few conventional sentences as heads of government or state usually do while meeting officially—and that’s it. Foreign minister Gohar Ayub has already said that no breakthrough is expected from this meeting.

Efforts to normalize Indo-Pak relations had begun soon after the start of Nawaz Sharif’s premiership. Eventually, the two countries’ foreign secretaries met in New Delhi in late March. Then, this normalization process became a victim of India’s domestic political crisis, caused by the collapse of the coalition government led by Deve Gowda.

On its part, however, Pakistan tried to keep up the momentum for the normalization process. In early April, Gohar Ayub met prime minister Gujral, who was then India’s external affairs minister, during NAM’s FMs’ meeting in New Delhi and agreed with him to take the normalization process forward through mutual efforts for achieving progress on all the unresolved issues between the two sides, including Kashmir.

Over a week after this meeting, the resolution of the political crisis in India produced Gujral as prime minister. Information minister Mushahid Hussain welcomed his appointment. He termed it good for the normalization process, citing Gujral’s track-record as a lover of Indo-Pak peace. But, strangely, days after becoming the PM, Gujral went to Jammu and what he stated there reflected nothing but a U-turn in his past personal approach to the normalization process. Even as FM, Gujral had said India was willing to negotiate all unsettled issues between the two countries, including Kashmir.

One obvious reason why I K Gujral has shifted his stance after becoming PM is that, like Deve Gowda, he heads a precarious coalition government—which, given India’s sensitivity about Kashmir, may collapse the moment Gujral makes any bold move on the Kashmir issue, the core unresolved matter between India and Pakistan.

The fact is that, in recent months, India and Pakistan have undergone a role reversal situation. Unlike most of the past, Pakistan has a strong government and India has a weak government. For India, relationship with Pakistan is a sensitive matter. So is the case with Pakistan. A weak government, as Gujral’s is, may not, thus, afford to act boldly on the normalization front—since, otherwise, it will risk its fall. On the other hand, a strong government can afford to be bold—as the Sharif regime has been since coming to power past February.

Abandoning the past Pakistan approach of linking talks with India to the core issue of Kashmir, Nawaz Sharif has talked about expanding trade with India. He has even gone to the extent of proposing the elimination of visa restrictions between India and Pakistan. Then, during the March foreign secretary-level talks, foreign secretary Shamshad Ahmad went an extra mile in proposing to Indian foreign secretary Salman Haider the formation of separate working groups to tackle every issue separately and comprehensively—as it happened in the case of Sino-Indian normalization process.

I K Gujral heads a coalition of his 13-party United Front and Congress (I) Party. The BJP has the largest number of seats in Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament. Neither Congress nor the BJP would like Gujral to even talk about Kashmir with his Pakistani counterpart–what to speak of making any compromise—even if, since 1989, the Muslim uprising in Indian-held Kashmir has continued to gain momentum.

Personally, Gujral may like to move forward on the Kashmir front—by taking along some communist or regional leaders of the Front, who may not be that touchy about Kashmir as, for example, the Congress or the fundamentalist Hindu leadership of the BJP is.

This option cannot also materialize: what a handful of politicians in India can do about Kashmir—an issue over which there hardly exist any two opinions in the country! But, unless the Indian leadership is willing to negotiate Kashmir in a credible manner, the progress in other conflicting areas of Indo-Pak ties—from Siachen to trade—may not be possible. For no matter how strong the Nawaz government is and how boldly it has acted so far for normalizing Pakistan’s relations with India, it cannot forget the Kashmiris’ fight for the right of self-determination—the achievement of which is what Pakistan’s public opinion predominantly wishes from its present political leadership.