The Mantra of Bilateralism

09 Jul, 1999    ·   220

PR Chari says making a fetish of bilateralism and dividing the world into opposing camps that either accept or question this schema is illogical, especially if bilateralism achieves no results but third party mediation offers the possibility of obtaining India' s vital national security objectives

New Delhi is cock-a-hoop with the Clinton-Nawaz Sharif joint agreement (July 4, 1999) asserting  " that concrete steps will be taken for the restoration of the Line of Control in accordance with the Shimla Agreement". Its joy redoubled since the word "bilateral' was used twice in its text. Somewhat self-consciously the government has claimed that it did not solicit American support to resolve the Kargil conflict, despite sending Brajesh Mishra with a personal letter to President Clinton from Prime Minister Vajpayee; the interest taken by President Clinton apparently does not amount to third-party mediation. The Opposition has alleged that the BJP sought U.S intervention deliberately, and has thereby compromised India 's bilateralism.



In truth, New Delhi 's insistence on bilateralism and hesitancy in accepting external mediation is informed by its obsessive conviction that external mediators have complicated regional disputes in South Asia . The prime example is Kashmir . Jawaharlal Nehru had, somewhat ill-advisedly, taken this matter to the United Nations in 1948, whereupon it got embedded in Cold War politics; this laid the seeds of a bitter Indo-Pak conflict that has raged for over 50 years with little hopes of an early settlement. The other South Asia countries favour third party intercession in their disputes with India to offset the latter's weight in the sub-continental polity.



Several examples can be provided of this chasm in perceptions. Indo-Pak agreements contain language--largely on India 's insistence--stating that bilateralism would guide their implementation. The Shimla Agreement, for instance, notes that the two countries " are resolved to settle their differences by peaceful means through bilateral negotiations". A commitment that they " shall engage in bilateral consultations" on security concepts, nuclear doctrines, disarmament and non-proliferation issues" is mentioned twice in the Memorandum of Understanding accompanying the Lahore Declaration. The benevolent Gujral doctrine is replete with references to " bilateral relations", " peaceful and bilateral negotiations", and " bilateral visits". One of its five core principles to guide India 's regional policy is the " determination to settle all our disputes through peaceful bilateral negotiations".



Little wonder, consequently, that the other South Asian countries are convinced that India wants to impose its own version of the Monroe Doctrine in South Asia in the belief that its security interests encompass adverse developments anywhere in the region, and that it bears a self-anointed responsibility for their eradication. On the other hand, the idee fixe among its neighbours is that India 's insistence on bilateralism buttresses its 'hegemonic' role in South Asia ; hence this well-crafted policy denies them the room for manoeuvre available via third party intercession.



Quite apart from accommodating the sensitivities of other South Asian nations, there are four good reasons why India 's insistence on bilateralism and abjuring of third party mediation is questionable.





·                     First, Article 51 of its Constitution enjoins India to " encourage settlement of international disputes by arbitration". The plain implication of this clause is that India 's shunning the modality of third party mediation to resolve its  disputes with its neighbours is altogether excessive;


·                     Second, India itself mediated on disarmament issues between the United States and the erstwhile Soviet Union in the fifties. Its yeoman efforts led to their agreement, along with the United Kingdom, to conclude the Partial Test Ban Treaty (1963) that later enlarged into the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996; to have mediated but to refuse mediation is illogical behaviour.


·                     Third, India has not been consistent in this regard. Exceptions abound. The World Bank mediated the Indus Waters Dispute (1960) between India and Pakistan . The Soviet Union mediated the Tashkent Agreement (1965) between the two countries And the "bus diplomacy", that fructified into the Lahore Declaration (February 1999), was indubitably facilitated by the American pressure, apart from that of other P-5 and G-8 states, on the two countries to moderate their newly nuclearised adversarial relationship.


·                     Fourth, it is uncertain whether Pakistan will withdraw its forces from Kargil; even it if does it could infract the Line of Control elsewhere in some other sector. If India does not wish to expand the contours of this conflict and, more generally, contain the behaviour of its aberrant nuclear neighbour it needs international support. Insisting on bilateralism and refusing mediation by the international community would amount to India crucifying itself on principles that have outlived their utility in a multi-polar and inter-dependent world.




Wisdom, therefore, decrees that a pragmatic approach is required to achieve India 's foreign policy ends. Making a fetish of bilateralism and dividing the world into opposing camps that either accept or question this schema is illogical, especially if bilateralism achieves no results but third party mediation offers the possibility of obtaining India' s  vital national security objectives.