Despite the sceptics who predicted the SAARC summit in Islamabad would achieve little, the summit is clearly a roaring success. SAARC has finally galvanised itself to set clear and time-bound goals for economic cooperation; and India and Pakistan have announced they will formally kick-off a ‘‘composite dialogue’’ this February.
Even an obsessive peace process watcher like myself has been surprised by the agreements reached in Islamabad. I expected a framework South Asian Free Trade Agreement but I did not expect it to come in tandem with a Social Charter. I expected a further thaw between India and Pakistan — because of the steps that had preceded it — but I did not expect dates to be set for formal talks, nor that they would take place as early as next month.
South Asia’s leaders were remarkably frank to confess that they had lacked the political will to tackle their people’s needs jointly — and to pledge that they would now do so. As token of their pledge, SAFTA has been put on a fast track and will come into force in 2006. At the very least, the agreement will save south Asia billions in smuggled goods and third country transit; at best, it will open markets, especially the vast Indian market, for each others’ products, and thereby stimulate industrial and agricultural growth. This should pave the way for, perhaps even hasten, a South Asian Economic Union that was set for 2020.
Meanwhile, the Social Charter that accompanies SAFTA balances freer trade with equitable growth, as the adoption of the SAARC technical committee’s plan for poverty alleviation shows. If it is harnessed to SAFTA, it should pave the way for, and perhaps even hasten, a more comprehensive Social Charter that will expand labour markets and harmonise civil and human rights in South Asia.
Implemented together, the two sets of measures could go a long way to improve the lives of the subcontinent’s 1.5 billion people.
These achievements would not have been possible without a dawning India-Pakistan peace process. SAARC provided the framework for Pakistan to agree to put inter-regional trade on a fast track, and Pakistan played a constructive role in ironing out last minute creases in SAFTA. But Pakistan needed the assurance of formal talks on Kashmir to move forward on trade, which India provided at Islamabad.
In other words, the relationship between SAARC and an India-Pakistan peace process is symbiotic — each needs the other in order to further its goals.
Clearly a lot of behind the scenes’ work was done to achieve the results in Islamabad, some of which we saw but did not recognise as laying the tracks of a composite dialogue. India and Pakistan began to move simultaneously on a number of issues some months ago. On the economic track they worked to get SAFTA in place, are likely to agree to gas pipelines from Iran and central Asia through Pakistan to India, and will discuss opening new trade routes.
On ‘‘people to people’’ they have restored travel links, encouraged cultural and civil society exchanges, and are now talking freer access to each other’s media. And on Kashmir they have a cease-fire along the LoC, Siachen and the international border, projected talks between the Hurriyat alliance and the Indian government, and soon to begin negotiations on a far-reaching proposal to reopen the Srinagar-Muzzafarabad and Jammu-Sialkot routes.
True, we still do not have a cease-fire by the jihadi groups, though the Hurriyat alliance called for one during the summit. But General Pervez Musharraf has assured Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee that his government will not allow ‘‘Pakistani soil to be used’’ for terrorism against India; and there seems to be a tacit agreement that India and Pakistan will collaborate to investigate any future acts of terrorism.
The two countries will also collaborate in the working group to combat terrorism that SAARC set up at Islamabad, and there is a likelihood that India might also see some action on its list of 20 ‘‘most wanted’’.
In these circumstances the jihadis could find they have only two options — either seek an honourable exit through a cease-fire and talks, or wait to be marginalised by the peace process.
Is there a discernible strategy, amounting to a road map, behind the various steps that are being taken? Yes, and in some ways the question ought to be redundant. To a large extent the present steps seek to implement India-Pakistan agreements reached in 1972, 1997, 1999, and attempted in 2000-01. The vision underlying those efforts was to engage in ways that would render territorial disputes amenable to peaceful negotiation while finding non-territorial means of self-determination. That appears to be the vision today.
The big difference is in the road maps. Until 1999, India’s strategy was to try and sort out the less contentious issues first, such as Siachen or the Wullar barrage, and then move to the big issues, such as trade or Kashmir. Between 1999-2001, India revised this strategy to meet Pakistan’s concerns, taking trade and Kashmir first.
This time around, the two countries have made a radical strategic shift — to seek the ties that bind, such as trade, travel and exchange — and make these a kind of protective cocoon in which contentious issues such as Kashmir can be resolved.
Most promising of all, this strategy has yielded a basket of concrete measures that none of the previous negotiations produced, and has added a regional dimension that the previous agreements lacked. In this respect India and Pakistan have borrowed creatively from the experience of the European Union, which found that regional association could help break through bilateral hostility, and that open borders can radically alter the terms of dispute.
It is too early to say yet whether the two countries will also heed the lessons that the EU has had to learn, that making peace is a slow hard business in which every achievement, no matter how limited, makes the light at the end of the tunnel brighter. And don’t forget the last quarter of the journey passes in no time at all, just as you were getting used to seeing the light up close.
The author is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a trustee of the Delhi Policy Group