Meet consensus: No fences

A consensual theme that emerged from HT Leadership Initiative was ‘need to open borders, extend dialogue and expand understanding among South Asian nations’.

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If there was one consensual theme that emerged from the two-day Hindustan Times Leadership Initiative on “Peace Dividend — Progress for India and South Asia”, it was this: the need to open borders, extend dialogue and expand understanding among the countries of the region.

Delegate after high-powered delegate spoke with some measure of urgency for countries of the region to adopt a more generous stand and foster better understanding and communication with each other.

While Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who inaugurated the meeting in New Delhi on Friday, went so far as to prescribe a unified currency for the countries of South Asia, former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto spoke about the need for more open borders.

“Territorial borders should be in place but there should be no borders to the free movement of people,” she said in response to a question.

The European Union seemed to be the model most delegates had in mind. Bhutto said borders between the UK and France were open and people could travel freely between the two countries, but that did not mean that either country had ceased to be an independent nation.

Congress president and Opposition leader Sonia Gandhi echoed the Prime Minister’s views when she spoke not only about the need to strengthen Saarc but also urged the adoption of a Parliament for South Asia as a “permanent deliberative body on issues of regional concern and importance”. Such a Parliament would expand the perspective on South Asia among all our countries, she added.

Although Richard Haass, a key policy adviser to the George Bush administration, described Pakistan as a “threat to the entire South Asian region and the world”, he too urged that a strong and stable Pakistan was in India’s interests. “In the long run, we see India and Pakistan as partners with their future intimately intertwined,” he said. Haass added that increased bilateral trade would create interdependence between the two countries.

Former Sri Lankan foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar said the Indo-Pak tangle had led to Saarc being held hostage to the issue. He urged the two countries to sort out their problems bilaterally.

Indian delegates representing the corporate world echoed the impassioned plea for increasing cross-border trade. Reliance Industries vice-chairman Anil Ambani articulated the need for politics to be overtaken by economic necessities while Hindustan Lever South Asia chairman M.S. ‘Vindi’ Banga spoke about the homogeneity of consumers and the marketplace in the region.

Even those otherwise at opposite ends of the political spectrum seemed united in the need to push for peace. J&K Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and his political rival, the National Conference’s Omar Abdullah, shared a common platform in urging a solution for Kashmir. Both warned, however, that there was no simple way out. Sayeed believed that the adoption of the Line of Control as the border was not an answer. And Abdullah voiced his displeasure at excluding hardliners from the peace process.

Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, however, harped on the view that a plebiscite for Kashmir was an effective way to determine the wishes of the people of the state.

Although Albright said – to resounding applause – that she believed India should become a permanent member of the UN Security Council, it was Fukuyama who had earlier pointed out that the UN had become an ineffective organization because it no longer had either power or legitimacy.

Speaking impromptu at the close of the initiative, Hindustan Times vice-chairperson and editorial director Shobhana Bhartia said the participation and exchange of ideas had “exceeded expectation”. She said it was her belief that newspapers had to go beyond merely reporting trends to actually taking the lead in setting agendas to make the world a better place.