New Delhi needs to wake up to its BATNA

 

Once again, a full-blown crisis on the Kashmir front is staring New Delhi in the face. Violence is unabated in the Valley but Delhi remains deeply divided — at the very highest levels of political authority—on how to deal with the issue. Why can’t we move towards a final solution? Academics practised in the art of negotiation say New Delhi needs to wake up to its BATNA or Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement on Kashmir. Knowing their BATNA helps negotiators look at a crisis logically.

The lack of New Delhi’s awareness how bad its BATNA can be is crippling when it comes to Kashmir as any assessment of New Delhi’s crisis-driven responses illustrates. Often enough, the Centre ignores initiatives midway through implementation and simply unveils fresh ones. The lack of continuity, patience and a grand strategy are frustrating for Kashmir-watchers within and outside the government. Is Delhi incapable of a bold political move on Kashmir?

Yes, perhaps, says a senior official in the security establishment. "This has been our approach for years, and there seems to be no change". But even as some policy makers agree they are frustrated at the financial cost of holding on to Kashmir, the old school insists there can be no compromise—ever.

The head of an agency with significant presence in Kashmir argues that New Delhi failed to take advantage of a period in which the security forces had the upper hand. This lasted till this year’s summer of rage and now that opportunity is lost, he says. Instead of putting in place a credible political process, "vested interests in New Delhi exaggerated security concerns while pretending to be interlocutors," he says.

His comments underline the security establishment’s frustration with politicians’ blinkered view and shortsightedness on Kashmir. Army chief General V K Singh’s recent statement reflected this when he said the "Kashmir situation has been tense for quite some time and the reasons are many. The basic reason being that we have not been able to build on the gains that have been made."

Another senior officer says New Delhi has been unable to craft the bold strategies one would have expected from a country whose global stature is growing. "Ultimately, crisis resolution is the work of bold political leadership. The successes in Mizoram, Punjab or to the limited extend in Assam during Rajiv Gandhi’s time are good lessons," he adds. But Kashmir is not an Assam or a Mizoram. It is a more complex issue by far. It has long been handled and mishandled in a way that complicates the search for solutions.

In the last 60 years, New Delhi’s attempts at a final solution bore the stamp of whoever was in power, especially the prime minister of the day. In the Nehruvian era, New Delhi engaged in international efforts, including a unilateral decision to take the issue to the UN. In the early 1960s, India sat at the table with Pakistan, nudged by the US and UK, and discussed possible solutions. Through out, New Delhi’s engagement was restricted to Kashmiri representatives, especially Sheikh Abdullah. In the 1970s and 80s, Kashmir remained relatively peaceful and there was little attempt to deal with a matter that the West insisted on calling the "unfinished business" of Partition. It was only in the late 1980s and 90s, when insurgency flared up, that New Delhi renewed its search for a solution.

In 2000, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee took a big step towards peace in Kashmir, when he announced the suspension of combat operations during Ramzan. Hurriyat entered into a two-way dialogue with New Delhi and Islamabad and India appointed KC Pant as the Centre’s negotiator, talking to different Kashmiri groups. NN Vohra was appointed special envoy but then he became governor of J&K when Manmohan Singh became prime minister in UPA-I.

Today, the status quo threatens to become the centre-piece of New Delhi’s efforts. Many argue that it is time Manmohan Singh renewed his original belief in out-of-the-box thinking on Kashmir. "He should take command," says a senior official. Hormis Tharakan, former head of the Research & Analysis Wing, says, "The services of an interlocutor who has the trust of the separatist leaders should be enlisted." In a clear sign the security establishment is tired of the crisis-driven approach towards Kashmir, Tharakan says, "There is no point in launching fresh initiatives whenever fresh troubles break out. Initiatives once launched should be followed up despite setbacks." Perhaps all is not lost? Some experts believe there has never been a better time to end the crisis in India’s most troubled state.

In a recent paper, Professor Adil Najam, the Frederick S Pardee Professor for Global Public Policy at Boston University, argued that Kashmir is ripe for resolution today, more than ever before. Najam told ToI: "I do still think that despite recent setbacks, India and Pakistan are better placed to deal with the Kashmir issue than they have been in a long. Pakistan, because it has so many internal problems to deal with that it is both distracted from Kashmir and will welcome the opportunity to have one less problem to worry about on its plate. India, because this is India’s global moment and as a rising power it wants to get past this lingering issue to taking on a bigger role on the global stage".

But this does not mean resolution is easy, he admits. "As long as either side thinks that they can "win" the Kashmir game, they will both keep losing and the biggest losses will be of the people of Kashmir. In many ways, I think the real key to the solution lies not with either India or Pakistan anymore, but with the people of Kashmir. We need to make them full and real partners in the negotiations—something that both India and Pakistan have resisted. But I really think that the solution lies there more than anywhere else," he argues.

In a lighter vein, he uses an Indo-Pak partnership to show the forward: "Maybe the governments of India and Pakistan should learn from their tennis stars — Rohan Bopanna and Aisam-ul-Haq — about how you really play as a team together."