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After Attari
C. Raja Mohan
16 April 2012

Last September, a petulant West Bengal Chief Minister, Ms. Mamata Banerjee, wrecked Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh's visit to Dhaka by pulling the plug on the Teesta water-sharing agreement at the very last moment. In contrast, the chief minister of Punjab, Parkash Singh Badal, was at the Attari-Wagah border last week, demanding that the Centre should do more to facilitate trans-border trade, contact and cooperation with Pakistan.

If Ms Banerjee ruined New Delhi's carefully crafted strategic initiative towards Bangladesh, Mr. Badal Badal was reinforcing the Centre's tentative outreach to Pakistan, marked by the PM's decision to host President Mr. Asif Ali Zardari in the capital. The irony is that Ms Banerjee is supposed to be a partner in the UPA government and Mr Badal belongs to the opposition NDA grouping at the national level.

The problem of contemporary India's foreign policy making is not that states have acquired a veto over the Centre. Most state leaderships have not only supported regional economic integration and trans-border connectivity, but are also craving for it.

The CPM government in Tripura and other states in the Northeast are demanding greater economic engagement with Bangladesh and are peeved at Ms Banerjee's scuttling of the transit deal that would have brought them enormous benefits. Delhi's problems are the big deficit in the Congress's strategic imagination and the UPA government's inability to mobilise the multitude of stakeholders in the border regions whose political interests coincide with national foreign policy objectives.

As Dr Singh reached out to Mr Zardari, the conservative Congress party and its "do-nothing" members in the cabinet are warily looking over their shoulders to see how the BJP and the security hawks in Delhi might react. If the Congress, however, chooses to work with the chief ministers of the western states, it could reframe the national debate on Pakistan. Consider the rare political opportunity that Mr Badal has presented for Delhi's Pakistan policy.

Speaking at the ceremony to open a new check post at the Attari-Wagah border last Friday, Mr Badal underlined Punjab's expansive interests in a reconciliation with Pakistan. "I am desperately waiting for the day when people of both the Punjabs would freely move across the borders without visa restrictions," Mr Badal said. "All of us ardently wish that these physical barriers in the form of borders must be abolished forthwith to further cement the age-old socio-cultural and emotional ties between both the countries," he added.

Sharing Mr Badal's hopes was the chief minister of Pakistan's Punjab province, Mr Shahbaz Sharif. The brother of former prime minister Mr Nawaz Sharif, Mr Shahbaz leads the political opposition to Mr Zardari. Mr Badal's predecessor and Congress leader Mr Amarinder Singh indeed took the first initiatives to promote Punjab-Punjab cooperation over the last decade. On both sides of the river Ravi, then, there is strong, local bipartisan consensus in favour of promoting peace through trans-border flow of goods, people and ideas.

In demanding an end to Delhi's prolonged neglect of landlocked Punjab's interests, Mr Badal made a direct appeal to Home Minister Mr P. Chidambaram, who inaugurated the check post, to discard Delhi's ambivalence on Pakistan. Mr Badal's message was directed not just at the nation's home minister and the Congress party, but also at the BJP, whose political opportunism so often overwhelms its judgement on foreign policy issues.

Having developed a deliberate amnesia about Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee's determined efforts to improve relations with Pakistan during NDA rule, the current BJP leadership's reactions to Delhi's Pakistan policy tend to be knee-jerk and hostile. But if Delhi gets its act together, the BJP will find it hard to oppose the interests of its ally Akali Dal and the people of Punjab.

Mr Badal's call for a paradigm shift in relations with Pakistan highlights the huge disconnect between Delhi's national security elite which talks to itself and the imperatives for regional cooperation in India's western provinces. For far too long, Delhi has viewed its regional policy through the prism of security without reference to the economic interests of the people. Delhi should instead focus on modernising the national security management and bring it in line with the demands of a globalising economy. Denying visas, limiting trade and blocking foreign investment from neighbours - the traditional and blunt instruments of Delhi's national security strategy - are hopelessly out of date.

Mr Badal's Baisakhi speech on the benefits of engaging Pakistan is not the only local narrative that questions the presumptions of the national security elite. Regional interests in trans-border cooperation with Pakistan from Kashmir to Kutch are demanding Delhi reframe its frontier policies.

Mr Badal's passionate plea is also a potential cue to Gujarat Chief Minister Mr Narendra Modi. Gujarat benefits enormously from and can contribute immensely to the positive evolution of India-Pakistan relations. In the short term, most of the expanding trade flows between India and Pakistan will run through the ports of Gujarat as facilities for overland trade take time to develop.

Over the longer term, the famed entrepreneurial skills of the people of Gujarat and its neighbouring regions hold the greatest promise for transforming Indo-Pak relations. Memons and Marwaris, Parsis and Patels, Sindhis and Bohras have for millennia connected the subcontinent to itself and the world through trade. Business leaders from across the border have shown great interest in Gujarat's rapid economic development in recent years and some of them have reportedly invited Modi to visit Pakistan. Like other BJP leaders - Mr Vajpayee and Mr L.K. Advani - who travelled to Pakistan to shed their hardline communal images, Modi might want to consider doing the same.

Whether Pakistan gives him a visa or not, Mr Modi has an opportunity, much like Mr Badal, to press for a very different future for the subcontinent. By invoking the ancient but thriving tradition of commerce that binds Kutch, Kathiawar, Marwar and Sindh and uniting the great globalisers of different religious faiths from the southwestern subcontinent, Mr Modi could emerge as a surprising contributor to the transformation of India-Pakistan relations.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)

Courtesy: Indian Express, April 16, 2012