The IPL fiasco shows it is impossible to maintain cordiality or rationality at the level of civil society when the government lacks the will to engage with Pakistan.

When the Angels who rule India say they favour dialogue and peace with Pakistan but then fear to tread, is it any surprise that fools would rush in to destroy that virtuous path? We will never know whether somebody from our shadowy security establishment whispered something dark and fanciful in the ears of the owners and managers of the Indian Premier League as they went in for the player auction last week and if so, for whom he was batting.

Certainly, the manner in which every Pakistani cricketer was boycotted despite the initial expression of interest by the teams smacks of considerations other than sports, business or common sense. Most of all, the decision betrays such a poor understanding of the geographies of market development, brand building and soft power that its net effect will be to undermine India’s interests in the widest possible sense.

My own view is that the boycott was not ordered or engineered by the Government of India or any of its agencies acting on instructions from the top. But that does not free our leadership from the vicarious responsibility of needlessly perpetuating a bilateral vacuum that has produced one of the most spectacular self-dismissals sub-continental cricket — and diplomacy — have ever seen.

In the face of a popular backlash across the border, the Ministry of External Affairs rightly noted that the government had nothing to do with the IPL selection. But instead of expressing regret over an outcome that it played no direct role in producing, the MEA statement threw a heap of salt on the wounded national pride of all Pakistanis. “Pakistan,” the Ministry smugly declared, “should introspect on the reasons which have put a strain on relations between India and Pakistan and adversely impacted on peace, stability and prosperity in the region.”

If anything, a little introspection on the Indian side may have been equally appropriate, since some senior Ministers — including P. Chidambaram — later went out of their way to say the exclusion of Pakistani cricketers was indeed unfortunate. Apart from reflecting badly on India, the insulting exclusion has allowed reactionary, extremist elements in Pakistan to seize the moral high ground. And it has pushed Pakistani public opinion and civil society further into the embrace of those who would like to perpetuate a climate of hostility with India and who have more than a soft spot for terrorism.

When terrorists from the Pakistan-based group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, attacked Mumbai in November 2008, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh decided not to repeat the mistake the Vajpayee government made in December 2001 of cutting off transport and people-to-people relations as part of its strategy of coercive diplomacy. Dr. Singh’s advisers knew they were dealing with a fractured polity and society across the border. They knew India needed a differentiated approach that would help isolate those elements in the Pakistani establishment with connections to jihadi organisations while strengthening those who had realised the damage state sponsorship of extremism was inflicting on Pakistan itself.

Within this framework, suspension of official dialogue was seen as a way of putting pressure on the Pakistani military and the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, a strange conclusion given that the army and the ISI were never too hot on talks in the first place and used the resulting tension to rally the nation behind them. The civilian leadership, which managed to get a reluctant establishment to accept that Pakistani soil had indeed been used to plan 26/11, needed the limited resumption of dialogue to strengthen itself for the larger domestic battle against military dominance and jihadism. The arrest of senior LeT operatives should have occasioned some let up from India, at least by the time their trial got under way last year. But the hysterical cries of sell-out which greeted the July 2009 Sharm el-Sheikh summit stayed the Manmohan Singh government’s hand. As for civil society, New Delhi believed it would be possible to push ahead with people-to-people relations despite the freeze that had set in at the official level. Subsequent events have shown that belief to be slightly misplaced. The problem was not with the willingness of Pakistani businessmen, cricketers, artists and others to engage with India but the corrosive effect the suspension of dialogue would have on the capacity of the Indian system to use soft power to its advantage.

The IPL fiasco is one example of the negative externalities generated by the lack of official contact between the two governments. But there are others. During the India International Trade Fair in 2009, several container loads of Pakistani products got held up in lengthy customs clearance procedures. Needless to say, this petty if unscripted harassment of traders and exhibitors from across did nothing to enhance India’s national interest. This year, many Pakistani publishers and book distributors have been unable to obtain visas for the Delhi book fair.

Instead of people-to-people relations influencing official relations in a positive way, the freeze in official ties has inevitably begun to cast a chill on all forms of interaction. Businessmen, who should be looking to exploit opportunities for mutual gain, have become infected with the same hard-line pathology that our security establishment suffers from. Last year, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry Task Force on National Security and Terrorism came up with a report so strident and hawkish that it provoked an unhelpful backlash from traders in Pakistan. Among the “hard options” the FICCI task force said India could take against Pakistan in the event of another major terrorist attack were “surgical” strikes, covert retaliation inside Pakistani territory, the blocking of imports, all-out assault and “leveraging the water issue” to pressure Pakistan.

Like nature, the relationship between the two countries abhors a vacuum. India held back the tide of dialogue in the hope that Pakistan would permanently dismantle the infrastructure of terror on its territory and a more fertile ground for bilateral progress results. The strategy might have worked up to a point but diminishing returns set in a long time ago. Today, India is acting as if the continuing suspension of dialogue is buying it security and that the resumption of dialogue would be a concession to Pakistan. In fact, dialogue is nothing other than a mechanism for advancing one’s own goals. In the hands of a skilled diplomatic establishment, dialogue, even on a range of difficult issues and disputes, can be used selectively to harvest gains. New Delhi has talked to Islamabad for decades about Kashmir without conceding an inch of territory and there is no reason to fear what might happen if talks are resumed. Especially if the same dialogue process also allows bilateral trade to increase beyond the current annual level of $2 billion and allows Indian soft power to create a wider constituency for peace and good relations in Pakistan.

It goes without saying that Pakistan needs to do more to demonstrate its willingness to crack down on extremist elements that continue to plan attacks on India. On its part, India needs to realise that engaging with Pakistan will be a more effective way of driving home that point than trading statements and insults every few weeks and refusing to sit down at the same table. A new start must immediately be made with the convening of a meeting of the two Foreign Secretaries. Neither side should stand on ceremony as far as the venue is concerned. Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram should make it a point to visit Islamabad for the Saarc Home Ministers meeting later this month and meet his Pakistani counterpart to review not just the Mumbai case but other subjects of mutual concern. The Saarc summit in Bhutan in April will provide another occasion for bilateral interaction at the Prime Ministerial level though careful preparation is needed to ensure a productive and implementable outcome. In the meantime, a moratorium on sound-bites, especially by those who are not in the loop or in synch with Prime Minister Singh’s thinking, is essential.