The meeting in Bhutan between the two Prime Ministers has opened a path, but India and Pakistan are not out of the woods yet.
The history of India-Pakistan relations is full of examples of leaders from both countries travelling to distant points on the globe — from Tashkent and New York to Sharm el-Sheikh and Havana — to meet each other only to end up standing still. Meetings held in the subcontinent, on the other hand, have invariably led to breakthroughs, big and small. Think Simla and Lahore, Islamabad and Delhi. Each of these encounters produced conceptual breakthroughs that briefly carried some promise of momentum before being swamped by the forces of inertia, dead habit, treachery or bad faith that are the constants in this cursed relationship.
To the list of promising South Asian summits can now be added the name of Thimphu, where Manmohan Singh and Yusuf Raza Gilani met on Thursday. Defying naysayers within their respective establishments and wider strategic communities, the two Prime Ministers crafted a simple but elegant formula for breaking the current impasse, thereby ensuring that the process of engagement — stuck for several months — now has some chance of moving ahead. The Foreign Secretaries and Foreign Ministers have been tasked with meeting each other to assess the current state of the relationship and identify the reasons for the trust deficit. This is to be the first step in what will eventually lead to a dialogue process aimed at discussing and resolving all outstanding issues and disputes.
With the “composite” nature of the dialogue becoming a political stumbling block, India and Pakistan wisely decided to transcend the confines of nomenclature. The process they engage in may eventually take the form of the composite dialogue or, more likely, improve upon it. But that will depend on two factors, both equally important: the results of the review the two sides conduct, and their ability to reduce the trust deficit.
For India, the restoration of trust depends on very simple metrics. New Delhi's overarching priority is to get Islamabad to honour its commitment to prevent terrorists from using Pakistani territory to launch attacks on India. Mr. Gilani reiterated this promise in Bhutan but the Manmohan Singh government will need more than mere words in order to convince sceptics at home. It needs the seven Lashkar-e-Taiba men currently on trial in Rawalpindi for their involvement in the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai punished. And it needs credible evidence that anti-India terrorist organisations like the LeT and their leadership no longer have the freedom to operate. Infiltration levels in the valley, which have been rising over the past few months, also need to fall.
Even within the constraints of what Pakistan's increasingly independent judicial system is prepared to accept, there is a lot more that the Pakistani government can and must do to address Indian concerns. The current thaw assumes the absence of engagement is making it easier for the military establishment in Pakistan to justify the continuation of its links with anti-Indian extremists. Prime Minister Singh's decision to agree to the resumption of dialogue is based on the principle of trust but verify. If terrorist groups continue to speak and operate with impunity, chances are any substantive talks the two sides begin on issues like Kashmir or Siachen will flounder. After all, the oxygen of trust is needed to scale those daunting heights, which no leader has managed to ascend so far. As for water, it is hard to imagine India agreeing to surrender rights given to it by the Indus Water Treaty or shouldering obligations not enumerated there — which is essentially what Pakistan would like it to do — in the absence of trust and normality. Putting the terrorists out of business is, therefore, very much in Pakistan's interest.
As the two sides review the relationship, they will try and come up with a framework that can build on what the composite dialogue has accomplished so far while transcending its limitations. It is clear, for example, that bureaucrats and officials have done all they could to resolve Sir Creek and Siachen and that those discussions have reached the stage where a dialogue between politically-empowered envoys is the only way a settlement can be produced. Similarly on the “core issue” of Jammu and Kashmir, the back channel has proved to be a more effective platform for serious negotiation than the front channel operated by the two Foreign Secretaries. Should the Kashmir dialogue, too, be made political?
An obstacle here, of course, is that the Pakistani side appears to have repudiated the understandings reached between 2004-2007 on maintaining the territorial status quo, making borders irrelevant, demilitarising the area and crafting administrative links between the two parts of Kashmir. But even that is not the biggest problem since either party is well within its right to walk away from the back channel. Today, however, the real challenge in reviving and working the back channel is the lack of clarity in Islamabad about who Riaz Mohammed Khan — the designated counterpart of Satinder Lambah — will report to.
Political circumstances allowed General Musharraf to work within the dictum of l'etat c'est moi and India dealt with him as such. But today there is no clarity. Depending on how the wider internal politics in Pakistan plays out over the next year, some clarity may emerge. It is in India's long-term interest that democracy in Pakistan gets stabilised and empowered. This means, every effort must be made to work with Prime Minister Gilani and his government, while keeping lines of communication open with other political parties and leaders. There have also been suggestions in several high-level Track-II meetings that a dialogue between the intelligence chiefs of both countries could serve a useful purpose. These are issues that need to be discussed and evaluated when the Foreign Secretaries and Ministers take stock of where the relationship stands.
Alongside this evolving process, forward movement on trade, investment and energy sector cooperation would produce mutual gains that could enlarge the constituency for peace in both countries. None of this will work, however, if the leadership in India and Pakistan succumbs to the temptation of playing to domestic galleries. Going by the record of the past few years, terrorists will attempt to destroy this latest attempt to restart the dialogue. Acting with maturity and restraint in the face of provocation will pay more dividends in the long run. In Thimphu, both Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao and Pakistani Foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi struck the right tone even when “nationalist” questions were thrown at them. If the dialogue process is to survive the critical early months, leaders and officials up and down the food chain in India and Pakistan need to exercise great caution.