Sensing the opportunity for a path-breaking peace initiative in the subcontinent, Senator Barack Obama, widely expected to win the US presidential elections, might consider the appointment of former President Bill Clinton as a special envoy on Jammu and Kashmir.
In a recent expansive interview to Joe Klein of ‘Time’ magazine, Obama said he has sounded out Clinton, who has had first-hand experience dealing with the Subcontinent. Clinton had played a role in ending Pakistan’s occupation of the Kargil heights in J&K in the summer of 1999.
Clinton’s visit to India in 2000 March marked a positive turn in bilateral relations, and the former President has maintained warm relations with the Indian leadership through frequent visits to New Delhi since he stepped down in January 2001.
When asked specifically about Clinton playing a role in redefining Pakistan’s relations with India, Obama said, “Might not be bad. I actually talked to Bill, I talked to President Clinton about this when we had lunch” at Harlem in New York recently.
While Obama’s destination of a peaceful subcontinent is not very different from that of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the two could easily fall out of step on mapping the appropriate pathway.
India has never been comfortable with third-party mediation in Kashmir, and will not embrace the idea of a high profile Special Envoy, even if the job goes to a friendly Clinton.
If Obama does get elected tonight, the PM might have a chance to engage him during his visit to Washington later this month to join the international summit on the global financial crisis convened by the outgoing President George W. Bush.
That should provide a valuable occasion for the two leaders to exchange notes on South Asia and order their advisers to begin a purposeful conversation on how India and the United States could cooperate in promoting stability in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
To be sure, Obama appreciates the dangers of embarking on a mission to Kashmir that is littered with failed international initiatives. Many previous administrations, including those of Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Bill Clinton, tried their hand, unsuccessfully, at brokering a peace between India and Pakistan. While recognising that Kashmir is “obviously a potential tar pit” for American diplomacy, Obama remains optimistic about changing the regional dynamic.
In the interview, Obama said that “working with Pakistan and India to try to resolve the Kashmir crisis in a serious way” is one of the “critical tasks” for his Administration.
Saying that Kashmir is now in an “interesting situation”, Obama is ready to explore the option for the U.S. “to devote serious diplomatic resources to get a special envoy in there, to figure out a plausible approach”.
Obama lays out the kind of reasoning the Special Envoy could use in New Delhi and Islamabad. “Essentially make the argument to the Indians, you guys are on the brink of being an economic superpower, why do you want to keep on messing with this (Kashmir)”.
To the Pakistanis, the Special Envoy, according to Obama, could say, “look at India and what they are doing, why do you want to be bogged down with this (Kashmir) particularly at a time where the biggest threat now is coming from the Afghan border?”
Obama’s thoughts are unlikely to surprise Singh, who has presided over one of the most productive phases in Indo-Pak relations and launched the first substantive negotiations on Jammu and Kashmir in nearly five decades.
Both Obama and Singh would want a democratic Pakistan that is at peace with itself and is integrated with the rest of the region through open borders and free trade. They also recognise the anomaly of Pakistan, more than 60 years after its creation, does not have legitimate borders either to its east or west.
For the first time in decades, the objectives of India and the United States coincide in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The challenge for Obama and Singh is to design a common approach to achieve these goals.
(C. Raja Mohan is a Professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore and a Contributing Editor of The Indian Express.)