Now that India has pushed for the resumption of dialogue with Pakistan, the government has begun the task of fleshing out the precise agenda that it will bring to the table when the two Foreign Secretaries meet later this month.

But if the first step represented a political challenge for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as he struggled to get all stakeholders on board his new initiative, the second will test the skill of his diplomatic advisers.

Pending Islamabad’s formal response, notes and papers have begun circulating among the principal players in the Ministry of External Affairs -- External Affairs minister S.M. Krishna, Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao and Joint Secretary for Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, Yash Sinha – with the entire exercise being quarterbacked by National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon and other officials in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Having hit a plateau with its strategy of ‘no talks,’ the challenge is to get Pakistan to up the level of its cooperation on terrorism using engagement as a lever. In order for that to happen, however, officials realise India will also have to bring something more to the table than the same finger it has been wagging the past year. In particular, it will have to demonstrate that there are tangible benefits for Islamabad from the meaningful dialogue which would logically follow the restoration of confidence and trust.

Even as they seek to craft a viable agenda for talks, senior officials say the latest initiative is driven by another, more pressing consideration: the need for India to step back from the edge so that it retains some flexibility in its response should another terrorist attack take place. “If you are talking, you can always suspend talks. But if you are not talking, there will be enormous political pressure to react in ways that might be counterproductive. And this government does not want to provide such an incentive to the terrorists,” an official told The Hindu on condition of anonymity.

In line with the open-ended offer made last month and reiterated by the Foreign Secretary in her meeting with Pakistan’s High Commissioner in Delhi, Shahid Malik, India is willing to discuss any issue that Islamabad chooses to raise. This means Kashmir, water-related disputes and allegations of Indian interference in Balochistan could all figure if Pakistan is keen to prioritise them. However, India’s own priority, for the present at least, is to make headway on the limited topic of terrorism.

This narrow goal is a product of frustration that the headway made so far on the composite dialogue process and back-channel diplomacy has not prompted Pakistan to shut down the operation of terrorist groups on its territory. But it also a reflection of the political perception of many in the ruling Congress party that public opinion in India is still not ready to accept a return to ‘business as usual’ with Islamabad.

Even if the Manmohan Singh government has come to realise that the absence of talks does not diminish the threat posed by terrorism, senior officials believe talks without the required level of trust promise, at best, limited gains. “The paradox,” writes Mr. Menon in a forthcoming article for the Harvard International Review, “is that while there is no alternative to dialogue, it is and cannot be the entire answer to India’s dilemma.” The article was written just after Mr. Menon retired as Foreign Secretary and well before he was appointed NSA but provides useful pointers to Delhi’s current approach.

Even without the setback that the November 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai represented, Indian officials say the existing dialogue tracks were running out of steam. “In four and a half rounds of the composite dialogue process, we had managed to pick most of the low hanging fruit. But something like trade across the Line of Control could only be clinched at the Foreign Secretaries level,” an official speaking on condition of anonymity told The Hindu. Gains could still be made on trade and CBMs, he added, but that would require a step change in the political relationship which does not seem realistic now.

As for Kashmir, officials say the problem is not Indian reluctance to discuss what Pakistan once regarded as the ‘core issue’ but Islamabad’s apparent repudiation of what was achieved on the back-channel between 2004 and 2007.

In the same article, Mr. Menon revealed that “intensive back-channel diplomacy made considerable progress in charting a way forward that would enable the issue to be dealt with in humanitarian and practical terms without affecting the territorial stance of each country … The progress achieved in these discussions was considerable but not conclusive or formalised.”

Two worries about process

Since the Pakistani negotiator in the back-channel, Tariq Aziz, was a close friend of General Pervez Mushharaf “whose relationship with the rest of the Pakistani establishment was nebulous,” Mr. Menon wrote that India had two worries about the process. “One was whether future governments of Pakistan would respect agreements, since Pakistan is a country where orderly transfers of power from one government to the next are the exception rather than the rule. The other was whether the internally omnipotent Pakistan army was on board. The first question was never put to the test and remains unanswered. All too soon the second was answered in the negative.”

Since Mr. Menon’s article was written, the first question, too, seems to have been answered in the negative, at least going by the questions Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi’s raised recently about the back-channel.

None of this is surprising, say Indian officials, since New Delhi has been working with the assumption that authority in Pakistan is fragmented and that the struggle between the military establishment and the civilian government is ongoing. And today, the pendulum has swung in favour of GHQ. “The dilemma for Indian policy is to craft a credible and workable response to existing threats, including that of more Mumbai-like attacks from Pakistan, while attempting to work for a more normal relationship with Pakistan,” Mr. Menon wrote in his Harvard International Review article. “Faced with a fragmented situation, the logical answer would be to engage those elements in Pakistan, such as the civilian democratic leadership, that may share India’s interest in opposing extremism and terrorism and in promoting a peaceful democratic periphery.” And this would mean using dialogue as a means of pushing for gains on the terrorism front.