India, Pakistan take step forward, but potholes remain

The absence of a joint statement or joint press conference at the end of the meeting clearly meant the bilateral gulf was still enormous. But the original purpose, of opening a path for a new process of engagement, has been served.

Updated - November 17, 2021 07:15 am IST

Published - February 26, 2010 02:32 am IST - New Delhi

India's Foreign Secretrary Nirupama Rao welcoming her Pakistani counterpart Salman Bashir prior to their meeting at Hyderabad House, in New Delhi. Photo: V. Sudershan

India's Foreign Secretrary Nirupama Rao welcoming her Pakistani counterpart Salman Bashir prior to their meeting at Hyderabad House, in New Delhi. Photo: V. Sudershan

So accident-prone and politically fraught is the relationship between India and Pakistan that conventional diplomatic metrics for measuring the success or failure of a meeting between them must invariably be discarded for more esoteric markers.

The absence of a joint statement or joint press conference at the end of Thursday’s meeting of the two foreign secretaries clearly meant the bilateral gulf was still enormous. But the fact that Nirupama Rao and Salman Bashir spoke of taking small first steps, stopping the “regression” in the relationship and rebuilding confidence and trust suggested their encounter had served its original purpose: of opening a path for a new process of engagement.

While agreeing to remain in touch at the foreign secretary level - it is more or less clear Ms. Rao will travel to Islamabad in the next few weeks - India demurred at Pakistan’s suggestion that the two sides work towards the timeline of a “substantial” prime ministerial meeting during the Saarc summit in Bhutan in April. And the Pakistanis did not accept India’s offer that joint secretary level meetings on a range of issues like trade be revived immediately. “That would have thrown us back to the pre-1997 days, before the composite dialogue format was created”, a Pakistani official told The Hindu.

When Mr. Bashir told reporters the meeting was neither a success nor a failure, he was stating the obvious. ‘Success’ for the Indians would have meant having their concerns on terrorism fully addressed, while for the Pakistanis it would have meant resumption of the composite dialogue. In the run-up to February 25, it was evident that these were impossibilities. To declare the meeting a success without these achievements in hand would have been politically suicidal for both sides. But if success was scripted out, what about failure? That danger was always present. It would have manifested itself in the current exercise being a one-shot affair, or one ruined by rhetoric and grandstanding. Fortunately for the process, that never happened. But there is no accounting for thin skins.

Asked whether Kashmir had figured in the meeting, Ms. Rao said yes, but added the unhelpful qualifier “briefly”. This became the basis for a question to Mr. Bashir, who felt duty bound to clarify that these discussions had indeed been “detailed”. Piqued, some Indian officials later sought to quantify the contents of the dialogue with misplaced mathematical precision. Eighty five per cent of the meeting, it was put out, was devoted to discussing terrorism.

By late evening, a section of Indian officialdom decided the Pakistani foreign secretary had crossed the line in his answers to questions put to him by reporters at a nationally televised press conference. If pressed, reporters present might have used the adjective ‘rambling’ to describe his lengthy responses but some Indian officials insisted on characterising Mr. Bashir’s briefing as “acrimonious” and full of “point scoring”. The one phrase they chose to take umbrage to was his statement that Pakistan did not need to be “lectured” to on terrorism. Mr. Bashir’s somewhat casual description of an earlier Indian dossier on Lashkar chief Hafiz Saeed as consisting of “literature” rather than evidence – a phrase he later withdrew when a follow-up question was asked – also irritated some officials enough to make them remind the media that the Pakistani foreign secretary had received his brief from “men in khaki” rather than from a democratically elected government.

One can only assume the Government of India at the highest levels was fully aware of this fact when it decided to invite Mr. Bashir to Delhi in the first place. Indeed, that it had already factored in the implications of the military being the most decisive element of the Pakistani establishment. When TV channels started reporting the churlish comments of unnamed sources, other senior officials, arguably closer to the Prime Minister than the first set, were quick to set the record straight and clarify that there was nothing unexpected or surprising in what Mr. Bashir had said and that New Delhi certainly did not intend to get into a slanging match.

A senior official told The Hindu the decision to talk to Pakistan was taken in full knowledge of the fact that there are many across the border who do not want the process of engagement to succeed. Judging from his remarks at a small dinner in his honour by the Pakistani high commissioner, Shahid Malik, late Thursday night – a dinner attended by Ms. Rao and other senior Indian officials – Mr. Bashir is clearly not one of them. In the weeks and months ahead, the challenge for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will be to push a process of engagement that restores trust and confidence on both sides, that advances India’s core concerns on terror and opens the door to meaningful dialogue on the disputes that have bedevilled bilateral ties. And of course, part of that challenge will also involve ensuring there is no public manifestation of dissonance from within his own team.

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