AFTER Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s meeting with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Lahore on Dec 25, India and Pakistan have entered a new phase of summitry reminiscent of one immediately after independence.
Liaquat Ali Khan was in New Delhi on Aug 16, 1947, Mountbatten in Lahore on Nov 1, 1947, followed by a good few others. We went to the other extreme with a freeze broken spasmodically at meetings elsewhere. Pathankot must not disrupt the new peace process.
Summitry itself has undergone significant changes since. Euphoria should not blind us to its lessons. It provides opportunities as well as perils. Winston Churchill was the first to use the word ‘summit’ in diplomacy in his historic speech to the House of Commons on May 11, 1953 soon after Stalin’s death. He proposed that “a conference on the highest level should take place between the leading powers without long delay” adding that “if there is not at the summits of the nations the will to win the greatest prize … doom-laden responsibility will fall upon those who now possess the power to decide”.
Summits are no panacea and it is political will alone which infuses life into institutions and mechanisms.
The Foreign Office baulked at the idea. Dulles was cold to it. At last a ‘Big Four Summit’ met at Geneva from July 18 to 23, 1955 and generated ‘the Geneva spirit’. It evaporated rapidly.
Henry A. Kissinger’s classic The Necessity for Choice written in the 1960s is relevant even now: “The advantage of a summit meeting is that the participants possess the authority to settle disputes. The disadvantage is that they cannot be disavowed. A summit conference can make binding decisions more rapidly than any other diplomatic forum. … The possibility of using summit conferences to mark a new departure in the relations of states should not be underestimated. …
“Whether or not to resort to summit meetings is essentially a practical and not a moral issue. They should be held only when there is some clear, substantive advantage in prospect. It is sometimes easier for heads of state to break a deadlock and to chart a new course than it is for their subordinates, who are inevitably committed to existing policies. …But to see in them a magic solvent for all difficulties is to build policy on illusion.”
An historic summit proves the sagacity of those words. Charles de Gaulle returned to power in June 1958. In September he had Germany’s chancellor Konrad Adenauer as a rare guest at his home in the village at Colombey-les-Deux Églises. That summit truly marked “a new departure in the relations” between France and Germany which endures still. Lessons of history must be read in the light of our conditions.
It is trite to say that summits need preparations. But enough homework has been done on the three major disputes between India and Pakistan — Kashmir, Siachen and Sir Creek. They can be resolved only at the summit. In a note to the cabinet secretary on April 6, 1953, prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru warned “nothing substantial can come out of a discussion on the Kashmir issue on official level. The only possibility is noting down various lines of approach without commitment”.
He repeated this in a letter to prime minister Khawaja Nazimuddin on April 6, 1953: “It is obvious that much progress cannot be made at an official level in regard to the Kashmir issue.” This is all the more true now half a century later. Yet, the composite dialogue, agreed on June 23, 1997, assigned Kashmir to foreign secretaries. It was the product of the Male Summit on May 12, 1997. Nawaz Sharif sought a ‘working group’ on Kashmir to break the ice. Inder Gujral did not. The June 23, 1997, pact was ambiguously worded. Gujral wrecked it. No working group was set up.
Summits are no panacea and it is political will alone which infuses life into institutions and mechanisms. However, the Lahore summit seems to have an altogether different aim. The prime ministers had met in Paris in November; the national security advisers and foreign secretaries in Bangkok on Dec 6; and the Indian foreign minister and Pakistan foreign adviser finalised the Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue on Dec 9 with little change since the 1997 format except that the national security advisers will deal with terrorism. The foreign secretaries will settle the details this month. Why then did Modi meet Sharif?
Two remarks made by Narendra Modi reportedly to Nawaz Sharif provide some clue: “Why can’t we be like leaders in Europe who meet each other for casual get-togethers and chats?” And “Ab yahan aana jaana laga rahey ga” (Now we’ll keep coming and going). These are words of high promise and reflect a wise resolve to break from the past.
The draft Agra Declaration (2001) envisaged annual summits; bi-annual meetings of foreign ministers and ‘consultations’ between the foreign secretaries. Such meetings avoid high expectations which the rare ones arouse and also make for quiet diplomacy. But this process itself raises hopes. It cannot last long unless it yields results. Engagement itself does not guarantee success. Scheduled Saarc summits were put off because of major bilateral rifts.
Sartaj Aziz, foreign affairs adviser, did well last month to caution against “unrealistic expectations”. He said “initially the focus would be on the reduction of tension and maintenance of calm on the LoC” in Kashmir. “Then we move forward to resolve issues.”
Narendra Modi has a vision. In Kabul, hours before the Lahore meeting, he sharply criticised Pakistan’s reservations on an Indo-Afghan entente, but hoped also that “Pakistan will become a bridge between South Asia and Afghanistan and beyond”. Realisation of this vision requires settlement of disputes between India and Pakistan. That will be the true test of the peace process launched at Raiwind on Dec 25, 2015.
Published in Dawn, January 9th, 2016