Siddharth Varadarajan

If India really believes dialogue is the way forward, it should not allow a disagreement over form or nomenclature to come in the way.

Forget Kashmir and terrorism or even Afghanistan and water, the current stalemate between India and Pakistan is all down to one word. Both countries publicly say that Dialogue is the only way forward. Yet each is paralysed by the name ‘Composite'. New Delhi is so allergic to it that it will not accept its use, while Islamabad has become so attached to the C word that it insists there can be nothing else.

This Indian allergy and Pakistani attachment is paradoxical, since the composite dialogue approach has suited India more than it has Pakistan. Under the guise of moving ahead simultaneously on all issues, the framework has allowed progress on trade and other subjects considered important by New Delhi, even as the status quo on major disputes like Kashmir and Siachen — key concerns for Islamabad — has held. Of course, the dialogue did not end cross-border terrorism or extinguish the links between the Pakistani security agencies and violent extremism as some on the Indian side might have hoped. But that was always an improbable shot given the DNA of the Pakistani establishment. Over time, India has realised the best way to deal with the threat of terror is by strengthening its internal capabilities while utilising engagement as a lever for influencing Pakistan's behaviour over the long run.

The two most important issues for the Pakistani side today — going by its public statements — are Kashmir and water. But here's the paradox: the composite dialogue, from its point of view, has produced no forward movement whatsoever on these two fronts. In four and a half rounds of talks within that framework, the total amount of time spent by the two foreign secretaries in discussing the Kashmir dispute has perhaps been 10 hours. During which neither side did anything beyond restating its national positions. As for water, it does not even figure as a separate head under this format. The only water-related dispute covered by the composite dialogue is the Tulbul navigation project, also known as the Wullar barrage. There, too, progress has been insignificant.

In contrast to the composite dialogue framework, the back channel between Satinder Lambah and Tariq Aziz was far more effective and productive. Between 2004 and 2007, the two special envoys, who reported directly to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and General Pervez Musharraf respectively, discussed Kashmir for hundreds of hours. More significantly, their exertions produced a framework solution that was cleared on the Indian side by the Cabinet Committee on Security and on the Pakistani side by the Corps Commanders conference, before domestic political difficulties triggered by his dismissal of the chief justice forced Musharraf to back off. As for water, the Indus Water Commissioners have been meeting continuously for more than 40 years and their forum represents the best platform for Pakistan because all the Indian projects it opposes on the Indus, Chenab and Jhelum rivers can be referred to an outside arbitrator whose decisions are final and binding. Compared to such a powerful dispute resolution mechanism, the existing dialogue framework is surely inferior. And yet, even though Islamabad's best shot at making progress on water and Kashmir lies outside the composite dialogue, it has got locked into a situation where it is refusing any form of engagement or talks other than that.

Now let's consider India. The Indian position has been in a state of flux since it suspended the composite dialogue following the terrorist attacks on Mumbai in November 2008. Broadly speaking, however, India has maintained that there can be no resumption of the composite dialogue till Pakistan moves to punish the Mumbai conspirators and dismantles the “infrastructure of terror” on its soil. In September last year, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made a distinction between “meaningful dialogue” on disputes, which would have to await Pakistani action on terrorism, and talks on “humanitarian and other issues.” Since then, the Indian position has evolved further. When Pakistan's Foreign Secretary, Salman Bashir, was invited to Delhi in February 2010, India clarified that while its own priority was terrorism, it was ready to discuss all issues with Pakistan. That is still the official Indian position. At a press conference on April 22, Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao said dialogue “represents a concrete method to move forward in our relationship … [It] is always useful. It helps clear the atmosphere and especially between neighbours, such as India and Pakistan. Dialogue is really the way forward”.

But if India believes dialogue “is really the way forward”, why is it unable to accept Pakistan's call for the “composite” dialogue to be resumed? The paradox here is that from the traditional Indian perspective, the composite dialogue has worked pretty well. Discussions on Kashmir have not led to any change in the territorial status quo but have provided a cover for India to move ahead with other parts of the bilateral agenda that suit it more, like trade and cross-border confidence-building measures. And if the Indian side is opposed to talks on the ‘water issue', the composite framework of dialogue is ideal because water does not figure as a standalone topic under any of the subject heads. Despite this, India is the one saying no to ‘composite' dialogue.

India suspended the composite dialogue in order to get Pakistan to take action against terrorism. Some action has been taken but the Manmohan Singh government rightly believes that Pakistan can and must do more. It also knows the continued absence of dialogue is unlikely to produce greater action on the terrorism front and might even be counter-productive. Yet it fears the “resumption” of the suspended dialogue will be seen as a sign of weakness by the Opposition.

India's options have been further complicated by the hardening of the Pakistani position on cooperation and dialogue since November 2009, when Barack Obama's new AfPak policy dealt the military establishment in Rawalpindi a stronger hand in the Afghan endgame. Even as the Pakistan army has stepped up its offensive against the Tehreek-e-Taliban and, to a lesser extent, anti-American extremists on its border with Afghanistan, it has played up the ‘India threat' card to balance the perception that it is too subservient to the U.S. The rhetoric on water, the Azm-e-Nau III exercises, the loosening of the leash on Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafiz Saeed and the increase in infiltration across the Line of Control are all evidence of the hardening of the Pakistani military's attitude. At the same time, the domestic political situation in Pakistan is fluid. The 18th amendment to the constitution has opened up the possibility of the civilian government and the provinces strengthening themselves vis-a-vis the military. The revival of the Benazir Bhutto assassination case in the wake of the recent U.N. report could also provide political ammunition against the establishment.

In the run up to this week's Saarc summit in Bhutan, where Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will meet Yusuf Raza Gilani on the sidelines, Indian officials are resigned to keeping the bilateral relationship in a ‘holding pattern.' Their logic is that if relations cannot improve, then they should not be allowed to deteriorate either. As a short-term strategy, the holding pattern strategy works fine. There are always small things that can be done at that level too. But an aeroplane cannot circle the runway endlessly. The longer it is up in the air, the greater is the likelihood of a disastrous descent. That is why planning for an orderly landing is a much better strategy.

In Thimphu, Dr. Singh must try and find a way of doing that. One possibility is for the two prime ministers to task their foreign secretaries with reviewing what has been accomplished on the terrorism front as well as in the last few rounds of the composite dialogue, with a view to expediting the resolution of existing problems and disputes. Such a mandate would foreground the necessity of a dialogue addressing all outstanding issues while sidestepping, for the moment, any nomenclatural disagreement. It would accomplish the stated Indian objective while allowing Mr. Gilani to return without having surrendered Islamabad's stand on the “resumption” of the composite dialogue. Parallel to this process, the Prime Minister should meet with the leaders of all major political parties in order to explain the reasons why India and Pakistan need to end the current stalemate. Finally, a strict moratorium on grandstanding and posturing, finger-pointing and name-calling is necessary. When the Prime Minister is directly crafting India's approach to Pakistan, ministers, officials and anonymous ‘sources' must not confuse the public with contradictory messages and statements.