Further delays in the resumption of dialogue with Pakistan will not make it easier to get satisfaction on the terror front.

An entire year has passed since the Manmohan Singh government decided it was time to find a way to break the dialogue deadlock and kickstart the process of engagement with Pakistan.

During this period, Dr. Singh has met his Pakistani counterpart, Yusuf Raza Gilani, once, Foreign Secretaries from both sides have met twice, and the two Foreign Ministers sat together once, in Islamabad in July 2010. That encounter ended inconclusively, even disastrously, with the Pakistani host compounding the visible lack of progress made in their talks with the impropriety of a public diatribe against his visitor. When the opportunity for a second ministerial meeting arose at the United Nations where both Ministers spent a week in the fall, cussedness ensured a suitable date could never be found.

At the root of the Islamabad fiasco was the fact that neither side was willing to risk upsetting political equations at home by appearing to concede too much ground to the other. Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi wanted to be able to tell the stakeholders who matter in his country — the military — that he had got India to agree to a calendar for the resumption of dialogue on Kashmir and Siachen. But India's External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna was not prepared to go that far. He wanted to calibrate any timetable for the resumption of talks on politically sensitive issues like Siachen to visible progress in the investigation and prosecution of those involved in the Mumbai terrorist attack of November 2008. What resulted, thus, was a stalemate.

On February 6, the two Foreign Secretaries will make a fresh attempt to press the reset button on the frozen process in Thimphu on the sidelines of a Saarc event. Unfortunately, they will meet under circumstances that are seemingly less propitious for a breakthrough with both leaderships under siege. In India, Prime Minister Singh is battling charges of dragging his feet in high-profile corruption cases and the Opposition's hostility towards him and his government has never been greater. In Pakistan, the killing of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and the open sympathy his assassin attracted from religious clerics and sections of civil society have vitiated the atmosphere and put the liberals and the entire secular political class — which forms a natural constituency for cooperation with India — on the backfoot.

On paper, the government of Yusuf Raza Gilani is likely to find a second helping of whatever fare India served last July as unpalatable as the first. India, too, may feel it has no option but to spurn the Pakistani demand for a clear timeline for the resumption of dialogue in the absence of headway in the 26/11 case. And yet, a deeper look at the dynamics within Pakistan and at the core interests of India ought to give both governments cause to re-examine their attitude.

In a speech to the Research & Analysis Wing on January 21, the Prime Minister's Special Envoy for Pakistan, Satinder Lambah, spelt out the government's policy dilemma. “Engagement,” he said, “does not always assure us of a desired response, nor does it guarantee success. However, rejecting the process of engagement will not enable us to achieve our long-term goals.”

In relation to Pakistan, India's principal goal today is the permanent neutralisation of terrorist organisations which operate with differing levels of support from the establishment of that country and launch attacks on Indian targets. The second key long-term goal is the establishment of normal relations with Pakistan. In his speech, Mr. Lambah made the only public reference the Government of India has cared to make in all these years to the back-channel negotiations which took place with Islamabad from 2004 to 2007. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's measures to improve relations with Pakistan were based on the principle that “borders cannot be redrawn but we can work towards making them irrelevant,'' Mr. Lambah said, adding that a lot of progress had been made. “The ball is in Pakistan's court. We will be willing to pick up the threads.”

In my opinion, Mr. Lambah's words point the way towards the possibility of forward movement but only if both governments have the courage to acknowledge the illogicality of their current official positions.

Three paradoxes

India knows “rejecting the process of engagement” will not enable it to achieve its goals on the terror front and yet it is unwilling to talk until it sees satisfactory progress in the Mumbai attack case. A second policy paradox it must overcome is that it is reluctant to resume the harmless ‘front channel' talks on Kashmir even as it is “willing to pick up the threads” on the far more substantive back channel if Pakistan agrees. Finally, Pakistan, which has spent the better part of the past six decades demanding substantive progress on the Kashmir issue must explain why it is obsessed with the immediate resumption of the formal process (even though it knows this will lead nowhere) but is reluctant officially to embrace the back channel process and formula which offer the best chance for a speedy, win-win outcome.

For the past two years, I have been part of a Track-II India-Pakistan dialogue process that the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in Delhi and the Jinnah Institute in Islamabad have been conducting. The meetings take place in Bangkok because neither government is willing to guarantee it will issue visas for all the participants coming from across the border, but that is the subject of another article! Besides strategic analysts and journalists, the ‘Chaophraya Dialogues' have brought together senior retired military, intelligence and foreign service officers, many of whom spent their entire careers planning and executing moves against the other side. Even in the tense atmosphere which prevailed following 26/11, these dialogues always produced a broad consensus in favour of engagement. But this tended to stop short of a fulsome endorsement of the composite dialogue process and the back-channel. Indeed, several Pakistani interlocutors — whether from military or political backgrounds — seemed reluctant to endorse the back channel. The military men said the venture was General Pervez Musharraf's ‘solo flight,' the politicians felt the process was tainted by its association with a dictator.

In our most recent round, however, both sides made some progress. “The absence of a formal and sustained engagement on the full range of issues confronting India and Pakistan is unhealthy, counterproductive and dangerous,” the Indian and Pakistani participants declared in a joint resolution. “We welcome the forthcoming meeting of foreign secretaries in Thimphu and hope that the two sides will be able to prepare the ground for the resumption of a comprehensive and sustained dialogue.” More significantly, the principle which Mr. Lambah spoke of — and which Khurshid Ahmed Kasuri, who was Foreign Minister in the Musharraf years, has also spoken of — found joint support: “We agree with the broad vision of India-Pakistan relations in which borders cannot change but can indeed be made irrelevant. We resolve that a dialogue between the two countries should include discussions on Jammu and Kashmir. The formal bilateral dialogue should be complemented by back-channel contacts. The people of J&K should be appropriately consulted in this process”.

Terrorism, the resolution noted, is of deep concern to both India and Pakistan. “Indian concerns about the Mumbai attacks in 2008 have seriously affected the dialogue process. The perpetrators of the attack should be brought to justice at the earliest. Pakistan has deep concerns about the tragic loss of lives in the Samjhauta Express attack. India has to expeditiously prosecute those involved and keep Pakistan informed.”

Taken together with the views of Prime Minister Singh's envoy, this resolution, which leading members of the strategic community in India and Pakistan approved, indicates a possible way forward. What is required is a process that can build on the Indian enthusiasm for the back channel with the Pakistani insistence on resumption of the front channel. One way to do this is to examine whether, after a suitable period of time, the two channels can be merged. After all, once the back channel reaches an understanding on broad concepts, translating it into actionable parameters will involve painstaking negotiation. It is significant that Mr. Kasuri made well-rehearsed statements during his recent visit to India to the effect that the Pakistani military brass, including Gen. Parvez Kayani, who was head of the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate at the time, were kept fully briefed after each back-channel meeting with the Indian side. No one in GHQ, Rawalpindi, has refuted what he said.

On terror, the aftermath of the assassination of Salman Taseer has brought home to most Indians the degree to which the Pakistani state is caught in a vortex. A system which cannot ensure justice when a high constitutional functionary is killed is unlikely to be able to offer India much relief on 26/11. This is not to say India should stop insisting on progress. But tying the future course of our bilateral engagement to this futile pursuit is unhelpful and counterproductive. Liberal Pakistanis say the resumption of dialogue with India will strengthen them in their struggle against the jihadis and the ‘establishment'. They may well be exaggerating their own influence and our own. In the worst case scenario, dialogue will turn out to be a placebo that will not help them or us. But India has nothing to lose by following their prescription.