When the Foreign Secretaries of India and Pakistan meet in New Delhi on February 25, the challenge before them is to craft an agenda and a schedule for continuous interaction despite each having a very different set of immediate priorities. For India, ensuring sustained and effective action against terrorist groups based in Pakistan is the one issue that tops all others. Pakistan, on the other hand, is most concerned about water-related disputes, a relatively new ‘core issue’ in the already fraught bilateral relationship. The fact that Islamabad wants to talk about water does not square with its demand for the immediate resumption of the composite dialogue, since the latter includes just one of many current and future disputes, the Wullar Barrage-Tulbul navigation project on the Jhelum river. To that extent, India’s proposal for an open-ended agenda for the Foreign Secretaries’ meeting actually provides the two countries a more flexible format for official interaction on the issues that really animate them than the formal dialogue process which still lies suspended.
Saturday’s terrorist attack in Pune may or may not be the handiwork of Pakistan-based groups but the target and timing of the bomb blast have clearly been designed to evoke a comparison with the strike that took place in Mumbai in November 2008. The fact that, at a rally in Islamabad on February 5, a Jamaat-ud-Dawa spokesman threatened to target the Maharashtra city is also a reminder of the unfinished business Pakistan has to attend to on the terrorism front if it wants to build confidence and trust with India. In the absence of such confidence, talks can and should continue but it is hard to see how meaningful progress can be made on the water issue. India is not violating the Indus Waters Treaty and if Pakistan thinks it is, going for international arbitration is always an option. But as the upper riparian, there is much that India could do on its territory to develop and recharge the Indus river basin, which straddles the two countries. As the lower riparian, it is in Pakistan’s interest to seek Indian cooperation in a joint venture of this kind. That would require winning India’s trust, which, in turn, would require ensuring that the tap of terror is not just turned off but dismantled. In her meeting with her Pakistani counterpart, the Indian Foreign Secretary can do no better than to repeat what Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in Parliament last year: that India is prepared to meet Pakistan’s concerns on water or any other issue more than half-way provided Islamabad implements its commitments and acts against terrorist groups.