Journalist | Writer | Analyst
July 24, 2014
Wednesday’s announcement that the Indian and Pakistani Foreign Secretaries will meet in Islamabad on August 25 “to carry forward the dialogue process” is a clear sign that the two countries are serious about giving their stalled relationship a determined push forward.
The upcoming meeting also brings to an end the drama triggered by the freelance diplomacy of the senior journalist, Ved Pratap Vaidik, whose controversial “interview” with Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafiz Saeed earlier this month led to raucous scenes in Parliament and a lot of irresponsible sabre-rattling by sections of the Opposition and media. “We’ll take it from here, chaps,” the two foreign ministries seem to be saying.
Narendra Modi surprised everyone by inviting Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif for his swearing-in ceremony in May. If his decision confounded Indians on both sides of the Left-Right divide, Pakistanis too were taken aback by the speed with which the new Indian Prime Minister reached out across the border.
At recent Track-II meetings in Islamabad and Chiang Mai, Thailand, a diverse group of Indians got to see first hand how Pakistanis cutting across the ideological and institutional spectrum were struggling to make sense of Modi’s approach. The hawks among them remained distrustful of Modi and critical of Nawaz Sharif for failing to speak about Kashmir and other core Pakistani concerns during his Delhi visit. But even they were disarmed by the warm and encouraging words Modi used in his reply to the letter Nawaz Sharif wrote upon his return to Pakistan.
While the atmospherics are certainly positive, we need to remember that previous attempts at peacemaking over the past decade-and-a-half have floundered because of a mismatch in the political capacity of the governments in power in the two countries.
When a politically-secure Vajpayee reached out in 1998, the Nawaz Sharif government lacked the ability to carry the Pakistani army with it; the end result was Kargil. During General Musharraf’s initial years, when the Pakistani army chief was the supreme authority in his country and was untrammeled by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary or the lawyers’s agitation, the weak government of Manmohan Singh found it difficult to move forward. Today, India has the strongest government it has seen since the mid-1980s. Without doubt, Mr. Modi has the political mandate to move ahead with Pakistan, but a question mark remains about the degree to which the Pakistani military shares Nawaz Sharif’s stated desire to normalize relations with India. Yet, it would be foolish for India to turn its back on the resumption of the stalled dialogue.
During our Track-II meetings, it became apparent that the main fear for Pakistani analysts is that India would like the dialogue process with Pakistan to focus exclusively on the “two Ts” of Terrorism and Trade, and exclude the subject of Kashmir altogether. They acknowledge that progress on the trade front is likely to be quicker than on Kashmir, but say any attempt to relegate the Kashmir issue to the back burner and cherry-pick subjects for discussion would not be politically acceptable within Pakistan.
It is for this reason that many Pakistanis are suspicious of suggestions from the Indian side that the “composite dialogue” formula – under which all issues, including Kashmir, are discussed sequentially – has lost its utility and should be abandoned. Of course, no one in the Indian government has officially made this proposal, though a number of retired diplomats have. The reason India put the composite dialogue on hold was not because its structure was problematic — or because it did not wish to discuss certain subjects — but because the Manmohan Singh government simply lacked the political confidence to engage Pakistan.
From the Indian point of view, it is very easy to allay the Pakistani fear that New Delhi wants a truncated dialogue. India is confident about its position in Kashmir and has no reason to fight shy of formal talks with Pakistan on the subject. Indeed, several rounds of meetings have been held in the past, including back-channel discussions between special envoys. The latter are known to have been especially productive. The Modi government ought to review the results of all previous interactions and take a call on whether to continue with the back-channel, or bring the subject on to the front channel, or even to upgrade the level at which subjects like Kashmir and terrorism are discussed.
For political reasons, it may even wish to reinvent the ‘territorial status quo-plus-soft borders’ wheel that Manmohan Singh and his envoy, Satinder Lambah, came up with. But there is nothing to be gained by telling Pakistan the subject of Kashmir has to be set aside for now.
On the trade front, the two countries had reached an informal understanding before the elections on the resolution of outstanding issues, paving the way for Pakistan to grant India non-discriminatory market access to Indian goods. If this understanding can be formalized during the meeting Commerce Minister Nirmala Sitharaman will have with her Pakistani counterpart Ghulam Dastagir Khan in Thimphu later this week, the benefits to both sides will become apparent very soon.
When Foreign Secretary Sujata Singh meets her Pakistani counterpart Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry next month, it is essential that they set in motion a process of continuous dialogue and engagement. The easiest way to sustain the momentum that’s building up would be to simply agree to the resumption of the composite dialogue, postponing any substantial review of the mechanism to 2015.
No doubt, the problem of terrorism emanating from Pakistan remains a major challenge for a India but it would be foolish to disregard the improvement that has occurred in the ground situation over the past few years. Given the escalating terrorist violence within Pakistan and the continuing imbalance in civil-military relations there, it is clear there can be no major political breakthrough in the bilateral relationship for the foreseeable future. Instead, the Modi government’s goal should be to quicken the pace of interaction on the trade, energy and cultural fronts, using gains in these areas as a lever to create a win-win situation for India and for key stakeholders like the business community in Pakistan.