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The wider vision

Why India must reach out to the subcontinent’s constituency of peace at all times

Written by Sanjaya Baru |
September 2, 2013 12:02:32 am

Why India must reach out to the subcontinent’s constituency of peace at all times

Two principles have defined Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s policy towards Pakistan and,indeed,the entire Indian subcontinent. First,it is in India’s interest to constantly seek normalisation of relations with neighbours,and peace and stability in the neighbourhood,even in the face of grave provocations. Second,there is a growing constituency for peace and stability across the subcontinent and India must strengthen these forces rather than allow them to remain isolated and weak.

To proceed to engage Pakistan at the highest level on the basis of these two principles does not constitute a “policy of appeasement”,as some retired diplomats,service and intelligence chiefs have recently claimed. Rather,such engagement must be viewed as part of a wider agenda of restoring to the Indian subcontinent the primacy it once had in this part of the world as an engine of economic development and political stability.

Few disagree with the view that the 21st century will witness the return of “Asia” to the centrestage of global economic activity. In the past half a century,the world has witnessed the rise of East Asia,then Southeast Asia,followed by China and then India. This “arc of prosperity”,so to speak,has the potential to extend west to the Gulf and Central Asia. Stabilising Afghanistan and Pakistan would be a necessary precondition.

It is inconceivable that the rise of Asia could happen without the rise of the Indian subcontinent. For too long have many of us in India imagined a future in which the country would rise,leaving the rest of the subcontinent behind. This is neither possible nor warranted. That is the essential departure Manmohan Singh has sought to make in Indian strategic thinking. His Pakistan policy,as indeed his Bangladesh policy,and his Sri Lankan policy — his subcontinental policy to wit — have been informed by this wider perspective.

To hold this historic shift,this shift in the tectonic plates of global development,hostage to short-sighted stratagems would only play into the hands of India’s enemies. Those who seek to keep India back and down would continue to destabilise the subcontinent,hoping the region would remain embroiled in pointless conflict and confrontation.

There are many in China and Pakistan who are playing this very game. In India too,the cacophony of “an eye for an eye” in the media and political discourse will only play into the hands of those who seek to leave us all blind.

Thankfully,there are many in both countries,and indeed around the sub-continent and the world,who want India to stabilise,grow and become the regional engine of growth. As one senior Sri Lankan diplomat put it to me,“Why should Sri Lanka want to ally with China and hurt India when India is next door to us and India’s growth is in our interest,as long as India remains open to us?” That caveat is key.

India as a growing,open economy is what her neighbours,including Pakistan,seek and would benefit from. China’s role in the region has been that of “exporter to the world” but “importer to Asia”. India is still a smaller trader but it can become an “importer in the subcontinent” and an exporter to the world. Such ideas might sound bizarre at a time when India’s exports are crashing,imports are rising and a huge current account deficit stares the economy in the face. But India will ride this storm out and return to its medium-term growth path of around 8 per cent per annum over the next several decades.

The Indian elite must recognise the fact that,as the country grows,it is destined to become once again the “crossroads of Asia”,drawing the entire subcontinent into the new dynamics of Asian growth,from Central Asia and the Persian Gulf to Southeast Asia. Working towards peace and stability within this broad swathe,along with the Indian Ocean that links the region,is not just in India’s interest but also its destiny. No other power has either the stake or the capability to discharge this historic role.

“A proactive policy towards Pakistan”,which our retired diplomats,service and intelligence chiefs seek,must be based on such a long-term vision and strategy,and not be waylaid by the tactics of those who deploy terrorists to prevent India from securing her tryst with destiny.

It is unfair to constantly allege that Manmohan Singh’s only unfulfilled desire is to visit his birthplace in Pakistan and that his Pakistan policy is defined by this obsession. In fact,he has no happy memories of his childhood in the dusty village of Gah,with his mother having died young and his father constantly travelling. His happiest memories are in fact of his youth spent in India and England. His Pakistan policy is informed by a larger vision.

As Manmohan Singh told Pervez Musharraf at the banquet he hosted in April 2005 in New Delhi,“A South Asia free of violence,poverty,disease and ignorance,in which there is a free movement of ideas,people,goods and services,needs to become a reality. The people of South Asia do not need further divisions,but greater unity. Clearly,a lasting peace between India and Pakistan is essential to ensure a stable and prosperous South Asia. The political leadership in both our countries has a solemn obligation to work in concert to realise this noble vision. History beckons us to rise to the challenge and grasp the opportunities to create boundless prosperity in our ancient land. If we fail to grasp these opportunities,our people will not excuse us for the economy of vision and courage.”

I believe it was this very vision that defined Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s approach to the challenge. Those opposed to this vision have,time and again,sought to sabotage the process of normalisation. Terror attacks against India have been funded,organised and carried out precisely by those groups that seek to thwart the subcontinent’s rise. But it is India’s obligation to reach out to the “constituency of peace and stability” across the subcontinent at all times.

Even in the face of the gravest provocation India’s response must be shaped by the larger,more long-term vision of an ancient,civilisational nation,with centuries of wisdom at its disposal,and not by the instincts of a policeman. It will be a frustrating path to walk,but walk India must,talk India must,till this constituency is able to overwhelm all those who seek to shake the foundations of this sub-continent’s resurgence. If India will not or cannot stabilise the sub-continent,no one else can or will.

The writer is director for geo-economics and strategy,International Institute of Strategic Studies and honorary senior fellow,Centre for Policy Research

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