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Regional Cooperation Holds Key To Progress

| by G Parthasarathy

( June 10, 2014, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) Prime Minister Modi’s outreach to SAARC nations and Mauritius, whose heads of Government graced the occasion of his swearing-in, will remain a landmark achievement. The Government must build on it

The presence of the leaders of India’s South Asian neighbours and Mauritius at the swearing-in of Mr Narendra Damordas Modi, as India’s Prime Minister, was a landmark event in South Asia’s quest for regional amity and cooperation. It provided an opportunity for India to re-assert its primacy in the region, despite its economic downturn and eroding influence, in the face of significant Chinese inroads. In the absence of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the stage was dominated by Mr Modi’s meetings with Presidents Hamid Karzai and Mahinda Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Nepal would do so much better in Indian perceptions if it sets its domestic politics in order and adopted, like Bhutan, an enlightened approach to mutually beneficial energy cooperation. New Delhi, in turn, will have to show greater understanding of Nepal’s sensitivities.

Sadly, but predictably, our Pakistan-obsessed media made it seem that Mr Sharif was the sole guest of honour. The meetings of the new Prime Minister, however, commenced with his interaction with the charismatic, outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The two leaders had spoken earlier, when Lashkar-e-Tayyeba terrorists laid siege to our consulate in Herat. This was the eighth assault on Indian missions and mission personnel in Afghanistan, which have included three attacks each in Kabul and Jalalabad and one each in Kandahar and Herat. All these attacks have been executed by terrorists from either the Taliban, Haqqani Network or Lashkar-e-Tayyeba, with clear evidence in three cases, of Inter-Services Intelligence involvement.

With US President Barack Obama having set a firm schedule for a total withdrawal of American combat forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2016, the Pakistan military establishment will now finalise strategies for a progressive takeover of Afghanistan by its Taliban and Haqqani proxies. India’s predominantly economic role in Afghanistan will accordingly have to be augmented by imaginative regional diplomacy involving Iran, Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbours, China and Russia. At the same time, the US its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies and Japan have to be approached to keep funds flowing for Afghanistan’s national security and economic development.

While in Delhi, President Karzai again alluded to his disappointment at India’s response to his requests for military assistance. This can be remedied, in consultation with Russia, given the huge surpluses we have in Soviet-era equipment, ranging from tanks to fighter aircraft. Given Pakistan’s stated concerns about Indian involvement in Afghanistan, New Delhi should propose a regular trilateral India-Pakistan-Afghanistan dialogue. A mere India-Pakistan dialogue on Afghanistan would be like staging Hamlet without the King of Denmark. Strategically, an effective India-Iran-Afghanistan dialogue is also essential, for development of Iran’s Chabahar port, providing India guaranteed and easy access to Afghanistan and Central Asia. This is the only way to overcoming Pakistani efforts to undermine India’s influence in Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Prime Minister Sharif showed statesmanship in overcoming domestic opposition from the Army and others, by attending Mr Modi’s inauguration. He, more than others in Pakistan, recognises the perilous state of Pakistan’s economy and the role of protégés of the ISI in promoting religious extremism and sectarian violence within Pakistan. At the same time, his effectiveness to deal with terrorism by acting against his protégés like the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba and the sectarian protégés of his Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), like the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Sipah-e-Sahiba is inherently limited. While Mr Sharif was in Delhi, he told a senior Indian journalist privately that while he would not insist on continuation of the composite dialogue process, he would be agreeable to high level back channel dialogue on Jammu & Kashmir and terrorism.

Interestingly, by harking back to the Lahore Declaration of February 1999, Mr Sharif has given the clear impression that he would be unwilling to reiterate Mr Pervez Musharraf’s assurance of January 2004 that “territory under Pakistan’s control” would not be used for terrorism against India. Does Mr Sharif still intend to use terrorism as an instrument of state policy, till the issue of Jammu & Kashmir is settled to the satisfaction of his Government and his country’s insubordinate military establishment?

The new Government will also have to decide on how it is going to act on the framework for a settlement on Jammu & Kashmir reached in 2007, through ‘back channel negotiations’ between Special Envoys of former Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and President Pervez Musharraf. Discussions on this framework were resumed last year, in Dubai. This negotiated framework was largely based on Mr Singh’s speech in Amritsar on March 24, 2006, averring that while borders cannot be redrawn, we can work towards making them “irrelevant”, or “just lines on a map”. He had also stated that people on both sides of the LoC could then move freely across the Line and cross-LoC economic cooperation and trade promoted. All this was premised on respect for the ‘sanctity’ of the Line of Control, as Mr Sharif had solemnly assured former US President Bill Clinton on July 4, 1999. Implementation of the framework on Jammu & Kashmir agreed to in back channel talks, is said to have required no legislative, or constitutional amendment. With the Himalayan snows melting, it remains to be seen whether the Pakistani Army adheres to Mr Sharif’s pledge on July 4, 1999, to respect the ‘sanctity’ of the LoC.

During his discussions in New Delhi Mr Rajapaksa was told that India expected him to abide by assurances he had given of moving beyond the 13th Amendment in the devolution of powers to the Provincial Government in Jaffna. Sadly, Colombo has not done itself a service by continuing the suffocating Army presence in the Northern Province and by curbing and undermining the powers and authority of Chief Minister CV Wigneswaran. At the same time, India has assured that it will spare no effort to continue its massive assistance programme of relief and rehabilitation for Tamils in northern Sri Lanka, and for getting the Sri Lankan Government to act on recommendations of its ‘Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’.

India has allocated an estimated $1.3 billion (`8,000 crore) for relief and rehabilitation of Tamils in Sri Lanka. This crucial programme cannot be implemented effectively unless maturity and restraint are observed by all concerned in dealing with the democratically elected Government in Sri Lanka, by eschewing rhetoric, whipped up by Sri Lankan Tamil expatriates. One cannot, but, recall the positive role played by former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MGR in striking a delicate balance between local political imperatives on the one hand and larger national interests on the other.

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