BY: Nicholas J. Wheeler and Talat Farooq
Face to face meetings of leaders offer the best prospects for building trust and kickstarting stalled dialogues.
A new “spirit of Lahore” is needed to break down the walls of distrust between India and Pakistan. With Nawaz Sharif back in power, the omens may be good. Just as then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Sharif took their first steps of trust on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September 1998, Manmohan Singh met Sharif in an informal bilateral meeting at the UNGA last September. This face to face meeting played an important role in resuming the dialogue process, which had stalled after the exchange of fire across the Line of Control (LoC) had claimed the lives of Indian and Pakistani troops.
Following the Singh-Sharif meeting in New York, the Pakistani and Indian DGMOs met on the Wagah-Attari border in December 2013 to discuss how to maintain the ceasefire along the LoC. They agreed on “re-energising the existing mechanisms”, including a more effective hotline, to address complaints of violations. This was the first such meeting in over a decade. It remains to be seen whether this momentum of conciliatory moves can be sustained, but the lesson from the Lahore peace process — which began in September 1998 and culminated in the historic meeting of Vajpayee and Sharif at Lahore on February 20, 1999 — is that the best prospects for a breakthrough rest on getting leaders to meet face to face.
At Sharif’s invitation, Vajpayee had travelled to Lahore, the birthplace of the Pakistani state, to talk peace. Amid the pomp and splendour of the visit and the evening banquet at Lahore fort, the two leaders in their discussions deepened the trust that had been growing over the past few months. Vajpayee, Sharif and their top advisors had met at a private luncheon on September 23, 1998 on the fringes of the UNGA. Vajpayee had suggested to Sharif that they speak alone and it was during this private meeting that both leaders agreed to set up a secret back-channel on Kashmir and nominate one representative who would report directly to them.
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For months, Indian and Pakistani negotiations had been deadlocked because of Pakistan’s determination to link progress in the bilateral relationship to concessions on Kashmir. Sharif took the courageous step of breaking this linkage and his government signed the Lahore Declaration. This put in place what, to this day, is the most comprehensive set of nuclear confidence and security building measures (CSBMs) between the two countries. Sharif’s willingness to make this important concession came from his trust in Vajpayee’s promise, made at their New York meeting, to deliver progress on Kashmir.
As is widely known, the trust-building process between the two leaders came to a sudden halt in May 1999, when then Pakistan army chief, Pervez Musharraf, authorised a military intrusion across the LoC in the Kargil area. Triggering the most intense military conflict since the dismemberment of Pakistan in 1971, the crisis spawned international fears of nuclear escalation. The conflict effectively scuttled the peace process while casting doubts on Sharif’s motives. Was Sharif privy to Musharraf’s intentions, and had he lured Vajpayee into a false sense of security at Lahore so that his generals could take operational military advantage on the Kargil heights?
“How did the journey we began at Lahore end in Kargil?” This was the question Vajpayee reportedly put to Niaz Naik when he visited the Indian prime minister’s residence on June 27, 1999. Naik was the Pakistani intermediary Sharif had appointed to negotiate a secret deal on Kashmir, but who now found himself scrambling to avert a full-scale war between the two countries. Vajpayee’s own answer to his question was that the Pakistani government had betrayed the trust he had sought to build at Lahore. As he later reflected, “I had gone to Lahore with a message of goodwill but in return we got Kargil.” That elements in the Pakistani military had betrayed India, Vajpayee had no doubt, but he never publicly accused the Pakistani leader of betraying him. This suggests that he continued to believe in Sharif’s personal bona fides, and blamed the Pakistani military for destroying the hopes for peace that had tantalisingly opened up at Lahore.
Fifteen years after the promise of trust was briefly glimpsed at Lahore, New Delhi and Islamabad remain distrustful and suspicious of each other. Interpersonal meetings between leaders do not guarantee the building of trust. But the story of the Lahore peace process shows that face to face encounters can, under particular conditions, build trust, and this trust can open up new possibilities for transforming conflicts. No one knows how the India-Pakistan conflict might have been reimagined on both sides had further high-level meetings followed the Lahore summit. Perhaps Sharif and Vajpayee would have deepened their relationship of trust in the same way that Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev did through their summitry in the second half of the 1980s, with equally momentous results for peace and security on the subcontinent.
Wheeler is director, Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security, University of Birmingham. Farooq will shortly take up a position as research fellow at the institute