Seek the peace dividend

To write about other aspects of India's foreign policy in the wake of US President Barack Obama's visit may appear odd. But India has undoubtedly become a favoured destination for many world leaders with positive perceptions about its role in global affairs as it moves ahead economically. India still faces serious challenges in its relations with some countries. In this context, it is heartening that China's Premier Wen Jiabao is likely to visit before the end of the year.

India's economic success, despite our inability to wipe out large-scale poverty, is a clear driver of the interest the world is showing. Newsweek magazine recently came out with an assessment of different countries, in which India was ranked third for economic dynamism among low-income countries. It also ranked different world leaders against various criteria. Manmohan Singh was ranked highest as the leader other leaders love. The reasons for this distinction were that "the Prime Minister, a sophisticated former economist, played the key role in India's emergence as a world power, engineering the transition from stagnant socialism to go-go capitalism". Highlighting our prime minister's unassuming personal style "that really inspires awe among his fellow global luminaries", praise was also forthcoming on his being "modest, humble and incorruptible".

Singh has been uniquely successful in international relations, quite apart from leading India's economic transition. India's recent success in the international arena includes the nuclear deal with the US, a major strategic landmark. The growing warmth between India and the countries to the east is also an important strategic shift which would suit this country's long-term interests.

However, it is now time for India to fully realise and accept its position as a major player globally. Our relations with neighbours need urgent and concentrated action. Pakistan remains a dominant fixation in our foreign policy, but we have not yet come to grips with initiatives by which we can mend fences with our most important neighbour. India-

Pakistan tensions continue to sap the energy of the South Asian region as a whole and remain a major drag on closer cooperation within SAARC.

A change is long overdue, given that India was partitioned over 63 years ago. A generation has gone by while old animosities and prejudices have not. We still tend to view Pakistan in the light in which it existed 20 years ago. Our concerns about terrorism in that country and the dangers it holds for us are genuine and founded on reality. However, that is not Pakistan in its entirety. A large section of its population fervently seeks peace with India, particularly now that Pakistanis see themselves as victims of terrorist threats.

Symptoms of change in Pakistan are very clear, including in the media. A respected former sports official from Pakistan who attended the Commonwealth Games praised India effusively for the conduct of the Games and was obviously moved by the noticeably enthusiastic applause the Pakistani contingent received during the opening ceremony. Pakistani newspapers reported this, which would not have happened a few years ago. They now carry a substantial amount of news about Bollywood stars and their lives in a departure from past practice. Discussions with senior officials in Pakistan now reveal a deep longing for peace and security.

Born on soil now part of Pakistan, Prime Minister Singh has a unique opportunity to show boldness and resolve in mending fences with our neighbour. The extent of pride displayed by residents of the village Gah in district Chakwal, Singh's birthplace, perhaps far exceeds pride manifested in villages where Pakistan's own leaders were born.

On September 26 each year, Gah rejoices and celebrates Singh's birthday. This year was an exception because only two days earlier, his classmate from school, Raja Mohammad Ali, expired and the villagers were in mourning. A visit by our prime minister to this village purely on personal grounds would be a gesture that would stir sentiments of friendship in Pakistan. The opposition cannot fault this, given Atal Bihari Vajpayee's bold initiative to travel to Lahore.

Normal relations with Pakistan are imperative because India can never achieve its place in the world if its neighbourhood remains troubled and prone to meddling by outside powers. Singh has a unique window of opportunity for bold and timely action that future generations on the subcontinent would remember and be grateful for. If Great Britain and Northern Ireland can end decades of hostility and terrorism, there is no reason why India and Pakistan cannot live as friendly and peaceful neighbours.

Europe has provided a unique example of nations that have fought each other for centuries but are now bound together as a political and economic entity - the European Union. There is no reason why South Asia could not emerge at least as an economically integrated entity which would have lasting benefits for the hundreds of millions of the poor in this part of the world. India would then attain its full potential on the global stage.

If major strategic interests are to guide our external relations in the remaining years of the UPA government, a determined initiative by Singh to improve relations with Pakistan acquires overwhelming priority. A personal visit to Gah very early could transform attitudes across the border.