India Ready for Closer Ties With Pakistan

NEW DELHI – India’s External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh arrives in Islamabad on Tuesday with a firm agenda to restore ties with an estranged Pakistan. This will be the first visit by an Indian foreign minister to the neighboring country in 15 years.

In an exclusive interview with IPS, Singh indicated that his visit would attempt to transform the relationship between India and Pakistan into one that is positive and peaceful to both sides.

The Indian minister talked on condition that whatever he said would not be in direct quotes because of the sensitive nature of his trip to Pakistan.

India, said Singh, now consciously wanted to eschew behavior that could be seen by its smaller neighbors as being hegemonic.

That might sound ironic considering that India just backed out of the regional summit of the seven-nation, South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) citing developments in Nepal and in the host country Bangladesh.

But Singh explained that India could not forget how democracy fared in its neighborhood. The effort, he said, would be to reach out and build all-around relationships encompassing people-to-people and cultural contacts – besides trade and economic cooperation.

Pakistan has its own anxieties over the "composite dialogue" that began a little over year ago but now seems to be going nowhere.

While India asserts that the talks are by no means dead and that long-standing difficult subjects are bound to take some time to address, the view in Islamabad is that unless the issue of Kashmir is tackled, any progress on other issues would not carry significance.

Pakistan has denied it tests everything on the touchstone of Kashmir. Nonetheless, the fact that both sides have hinged bilateral ties on this unresolved issue means that Kashmir continues to remain a thorn.

But there are major issues on Singh’s agenda that can certainly inject dynamism and purpose to the faltering talks. One of them is a long-pending proposal to bring gas from the fields of Iran to India through Pakistan.

Another is the rescheduling of the SAARC summit that was postponed twice – first by the Dec. 26 tsunami that affected three members, Maldives, Sri Lanka, and India, and then by the Feb. 1 "royal coup" in Nepal by King Gyanendra.

As far as Kashmir and related confidence-building measures (CBMs) are concerned, the scope for rapid progress is confined to various steps suggested by India and put on the table.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has already indicated during a meeting with Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf – on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York last September – that there could be no redrawing of maps in Kashmir or elsewhere.

Amid this limitation, President Musharraf had called for a national debate on possible alternative solutions to Pakistan’s old demand for a popular plebiscite in Kashmir.

It will now be up to Pakistan to propose those possible new solutions and to see whether India can or will accept any of them. One way or another, these negotiations are bound to be long and drawn out.

Meanwhile progress is expected, during Singh’s visit, on at least one CBM – a bus service between the Indian and Pakistani controlled parts of the Kashmir Valley.

It is understood that the Indian side is likely to make a concession on its earlier demand that passengers from both sides carry passports. "Local documents," now it seems, will suffice – as in the period before the 1965 India-Pakistan war over the disputed territory of Kashmir.

Should this go ahead, a number of other CBMs are sure to follow in short order.

As for the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline, New Delhi has executed a neat maneuver. It is soon due to conclude a bilateral agreement with Iran to deliver gas to India at an agreed price.

Both Iran and Pakistan will sort out the security concerns of the pipeline passing through Pakistani territory and deal with the question of transit fees. Given Iran’s anxiety to sell gas to India – and possibly even to China through India – the ball has been deftly and firmly kicked into Pakistan’s court.

On the question of the SAARC summit, its rescheduling now depends very much on ties between Nepal and India.

Previously, SAARC members used to blame India and Pakistan for scuttling summit talks. Ironically, now Nepal is the culprit.

There are a large number of issues between India and Pakistan – other than disputes over dams and water schemes – that can quickly be resolved. There are procedural matters like the reopening of consulate generals in Karachi and Mumbai, a progressive relaxation of visa regime between the two countries, and of course freer bilateral trade.

Most Indians and Pakistanis feel that limits on trade, economic cooperation, and cultural exchanges should be done away with.

Singh is likely to announce a few unilateral measures. He may offer assistance to Pakistan to enable it to reopen a railway link that was severed during the 1965 India-Pakistan war. Should this happen, trade can flow from India’s Rajasthan state to Pakistan’s Sindh province – easing the movement of ordinary Pakistanis and Indians between the two areas.