Why Vajpayee's Trip Will Fail

Rohan Oberoi

So Prime Minister Vajpayee is going to Lahore.

The excitement in India over his trip is enormous. Not even Rajiv Gandhi's visit to Benazir generated this kind of hype.

Vajpayee's bus will be followed by an Indian Air Force helicopter equipped with cameras, to film the historic occasion. The bus will be tailed by Saeed Naqvi. Doordarshan has laid on a star-studded cast of anchors, possibly including Khushwant Singh. Dev Anand, Javed Akhtar, Shatrughan Sinha, Mallika Sarabhai, Kapil Dev, Kuldip Nayyar and Arun Shourie -- to name only a few -- will be going with the Prime Minister. A well-planted bomb on that bus could take out half the cream of India's elite.

Words like "euphoria" and "historic" trip easily from journalists and politicians alike. The Indian government is "cautiously optimistic": the newspaper editorials are over the moon.

Sadly, all this excitement will be for nothing.

The outcome of the Vajpayee-Sharif meeting can be determined in advance. There will be some optimistic statements; Sharif will put on the best of Lahori hospitality for his guest, and the two will return to Delhi. They may sign an agreement or two on "confidence building measures".

In the end, not one single substantial improvement in relations will emerge. India and Pakistan will continue to spend vast sums of money on their military rivalry. The uprising in Kashmir will continue, and we will continue to accuse Pakistan of waging a proxy war. Everything will go back to abnormal.

This is because the Indian public will not allow Vajpayee to budge one iota on the fundamental sticking point of India-Pakistan disagreement. It will not allow him to say that Kashmir can have self-determination.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Sartaz Aziz has clearly warned that "Pakistani public opinion cannot indefinitely sustain a dialogue process that does not record substantive progress on the core issue of Kashmir". That is, unless India makes real concessions on Kashmir, there will be no progress in friendly relations.

Nothing. Zilch. Nada. There may be a bus service or two; there may be some photo-opportunities for the two Prime Ministers. But, unless the Pakistani public sees progress on Kashmir, any Pakistani Prime Minister who gets too friendly with India is going to eat dust at the polls. And Nawaz Sharif knows it.

The only people who don't seem to know it are the Indians, the ones on the Bus To Pakistan.

It is easy to see why Indians are so excited about the possibility of rapprochement with Pakistan. We are losing so much by this rivalry, and we have so much to gain by jettisoning it. According to the International Defense Review, the Indian government is spending half a million dollars *every day* on the Siachen glacier operations alone. The total amount we are spending on military preparedness on the Pakistan border, plus internal security duty in Kashmir, boggles the mind. Army Chief of Staff Malik confirmed this month that almost one-quarter of the Indian Army (250,000 men) is on internal security duty; and that doesn't count the ones facing off against Pakistan on the border. This tremendous military expenditure impoverishes us and takes away money that could be spent on education, healthcare and infrastructure; nor does it do anything to improve our image in the world.

The problem is that we are fooling ourselves. We refuse to face the facts: either we maintain our uncompromising stance on Kashmir, or we make peace with Pakistan. We cannot have both. "Talks" with Pakistan are just so much babble if all we do is repeat the same things we have been saying for twenty years.

The ball is in India's court. We have, basically, two options.

1. We can choose to maintain the status quo. In this scenario, we continue to claim Kashmir as an integral part of India, accuse Pakistan of waging a proxy war, and try to use the army to beat the Kashmiris into submission. We continue to spend vast sums of money on this strategy, and we continue to look like fools. Pakistan is angry with us, the Kashmiris hate us, and south Asia continues to be a world centre of idiocy and human misery.

2. We can choose to fundamentally re-examine our policy in terms of our own interests. In this scenario, we make whatever concessions are necessary to arrive at a political solution to Kashmir -- even if it involves making parts of Kashmir independent or handing them over to Pakistan -- and sign military agreements (or even alliances) with Pakistan that end the subcontinental arms race. India and Pakistan begin trading freely, stop spending their money on a sterile rivalry, and south Asia begins to claw its way out of poverty.

Unfortunately, it looks like India's choice remains the first option.

In the 1960s, men of the stature and vision of Jayaprakash Narayan, C. Rajagopalachari, and Minoo Masani tried to change that, and failed. We have no one of their stature or their vision today.

And that is why the hype over Vajpayee's trip to Lahore will remain just that: hype.

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