Jettisoning Bilateralism: Is India Ready for a Madrid Conference?

29 Jun, 1999    ·   215

Sushil J. Aaron perceives that if a combination of American pressure on Pakistan and India’s offensive ends the hostilities in Kargil, the Western powers can be expected to push for an internationally mediated conference on the lines of the 1991 Arab-Israeli Madrid Conference that led to the Oslo Accords

Indian diplomacy has been having an unexpected run of successes. Its foreign policy establishment is very pleased that the US, G-8 countries, Germany and the United Kingdom have separately supported India’s case on Kargil and accepted the violation of the Line of Control (LoC). President Clinton’s demarche on  Pakistan to withdraw from the Indian side of the LoC has inspired unnamed MEA officials to adjudge a “paradigm shift” having occurred in US policy towards India .



But India ’s diplomatic conduct regarding developments in Kargil exhibits an extraordinary paradox. Its eagerness to solicit international support against Pakistan , despite its avowed disinclination to draw the world community into resolving the Kashmir dispute, contradicts its declared policy of seeking only a “bilateral solution” to the conflict. Rushing Principal Secretary Brajesh Mishra to Paris to hand over a letter to President Clinton and GOI's palpable relief that China has remained neutral on the Kargil imbroglio seriously questions India's  fetish of  bilateralism to symbolize its sovereignty.



India 's lobbying for Western support against Pakistan mirror-images  Pakistan 's attempts to project India as the usurper of Kashmir . India has always been sensitive to developments that question its statist mythology and its interests in maintaining the status quo in Kashmir . Irrespective of the fora chosen to exert diplomatic pressure on Pakistan , India has contributed thereby, inadvertently perhaps, to internationalizing  the Kashmir issue by clamoring  for recognition that it is the  victim of aggression by Pakistan . Besides, the phrase “key interlocutors” in Prime Minister Vajpayee’s speech on the CTBT in the UN refers to mediators for all practical purposes.



When push comes to shove, India has easily abandoned its bilateralism pretensions in the past, and accepted international mediation. Apart from the obvious example of Tashkent in 1965, India accepted World Bank mediation in 1954 on the Indus Waters dispute at America ’s behest, which culminated in the inestimable Indus Waters Treaty in 1960.



India ’s bilateralist impulse was born out of an awareness of its cultural uniqueness, loosely formed aspirations of exercising hegemony over the subcontinent, plus the need to fudge its evident failures on the socio-economic front. Bilateralism has become questionable, however, if not irrelevant, in the post Cold War, inter-dependent world as the Kargil episode has revealed.



Shekhar Gupta has pointed out in The Indian Express that India can scarcely hope to go offline after having logged on for international support. The military campaign is likely to continue for some months and so will international media attention. Questions concerning India ’s human rights record in Kashmir and offers to mediate are bound to increase. India cannot get incensed at the very mention of the "K" word as happened when Nelson Mandela merely spoke of the need to settle the conflict at the NAM summit last September.



Which brings us to the end game unfolding in Kargil. It is still unclear whether India will succeed in evicting the infiltrators before winter sets in The political directive not to cross the LoC and the concomitant expectation that lost territory must be recaptured in 3 months has hemmed the armed forces in. If a combination of American pressure on Pakistan and India ’s offensive ends the hostilities in Kargil, the Western powers can be expected to push for an internationally mediated conference on the lines of the 1991 Arab-Israeli Madrid Conference that led to the Oslo Accords.



A comparison of the sub-continental conflict with the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio is possible. The difference in scale and setting is apparent; but the adversaries in both cases have a common history of cultural differences and implacable tensions and diplomatic distrust. Foreign Ministers Jaswant Singh and Sartaj Aziz barely made eye contact when they met recently in Delhi . They can scarcely be expected to do a photo-op when they meet again.



Incidentally, substantive talks towards resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict began in Madrid through the mediation of the US and Norway . They were initiated in the aftermath of the Gulf War when the US could extract a diplomatic price from Israel for shielding it from Iraqi Scuds.



India and Pakistan might, likewise, be persuaded to meet by “key interlocutors” like the US or the U.N.  India could similarly be persuaded by the US to come to the negotiating table after ensuring a Pakistani withdrawal to its side of the LoC. India should be prepared for this eventuality, since the internationalization of the Kashmir issue has already occurred.