Even before Badal crossed the border at Wagah, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar was arriving to a warm welcome in Karachi. That neither of these visits has got much attention in Delhi underlines how out of touch the “national” establishment is with the “regional” imperatives shaping India’s foreign policy.
Badal’s Akali Dal and the Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) are both both allies of the BJP. Their embrace of Pakistan stands in contrast to the BJP’s reflexive hawkishness.
If the BJP has abandoned the peace legacy of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the Congress has not had the courage of conviction to follow through its own initiatives. Conservatives in the UPA cabinet, like Defence Minister A.K. Antony, have repeatedly blocked the PM’s initiatives, including his plans to visit Pakistan a few years ago.
The PM has also allowed the intelligence agencies, the armed forces and the civilian bureaucracy to exercise a veto over his regional initiatives. These agencies are supposed to give professional inputs, but it is the PM’s prerogative and responsibility to make policy.
In its reluctance to put politics in command of the nation’s neighbourhood diplomacy, the Congress has ceded the initiative not to the BJP, but to regional leaders.
Badal and Nitish Kumar are filling the political vacuum by developing ideas that Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh have articulated since the late 1990s. Badal is only retracing the path of Amarinder Singh, the Congress chief minister who took the first steps to promote cooperation between the two Punjabs. And Nitish Kumar is following Lalu Prasad, who made a hugely successful visit to Pakistan a few years ago. The difference is that Badal and Nitish Kumar have high political stakes in deepening ties with Pakistan.
Badal has argued that the economic future of East Punjab rests with the renewal of commercial engagement with West Punjab and the reopening of post-Partition borders that were locked down after the 1965 and 1971 wars. In his talks with West Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif and other political and business leaders, Badal has laid out an ambitious agenda for the two Punjabs.
On the economic side, Badal called for opening additional trade routes besides the current one at Wagah-Attari, and the establishment of joint industrial zones on the Radcliffe Line with duty-free access to India and Pakistan. Badal and Sharif have agreed to set up a working committee with representatives from the two Punjabs to monitor, promote and facilitate trade across the Radcliffe Line.
Within a few weeks, Sharif, accompanied by a large business delegation, is expected to arrive in Amritsar, reciprocating Badal’s visit. Badal also wants India and Pakistan to ease the many current restrictions on travel across the Radcliffe Line. He has urged Delhi and Islamabad to set up consulates in Lahore and Amritsar.
Badal is not the only one demanding that India and Pakistan redress the many negative effects of Partition on the people of the subcontinent. There are millions of people across the country, including in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, who have great stakes in a normal relationship between India and Pakistan.
The bitter legacies of Partition are not confined to our western frontiers. The division of Bengal in 1947 has left a huge trail of its own unresolved problems. The UPA government has sought a genuine transformation of relations with Pakistan. It had also made great headway with Bangladesh, until the chief minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, threw a spanner into the works.
The Congress party’s political timidity, the PM’s unwillingness to impose his authority on his cabinet colleagues, the UPA’s reluctance to call the bluff of allies like Banerjee and its hesitation to command the bureaucracy, have severely constrained Delhi.
The Congress leadership has every reason to welcome the Pakistan visits by Badal and Nitish Kumar, for they open up much-needed political space for the UPA government on regional diplomacy. The PM must encourage other chief ministers to travel frequently to Pakistan and Bangladesh and widen the peace constituencies on both sides of the border.
While the chief ministers and local forces can generate a more conducive environment for trans-border cooperation in the subcontinent, the power to alter the structure of relations remains with the federal governments.
In the case of Pakistan, it is not clear how tolerant the army might be of cross-border, sub-national cooperation in the Punjab. But there is no denying that the civilian leaders in Pakistan are enthusiastic.
For its part, Delhi must bite the bullet and make the political case for moving forward boldly with Islamabad and Dhaka. Minor policy adjustments in Delhi could lead to massive changes in the lives of those who have had to endure the tragic consequences of Partition.
Nothing will demonstrate India’s commitment to transforming its relations with its neighbours more than an early visit, however brief it might be, to Pakistan by the prime minister. Laying down no pre-conditions and seeking no deliverables, Manmohan Singh could use the visit to outline his vision for a very different subcontinent, of the kind that Badal and Nitish Kumar have begun to talk about.
If he does, the Congress might find that a forward-looking neighbourhood policy is also good domestic politics. After all, the millions of people living along India’s frontiers are pressing for borders that are open and user-friendly.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and contributing editor, ‘The Indian Express’