Siddharth Varadarajan

For India and Pakistan, nomenclature triggers more unease than dialogue

What’s in a name? A lot, apparently, as India and Pakistan agonise over whether the dialogue they would both officially like to start should be called ‘composite’, ‘limited’, ‘measured’ or ‘open-ended.’

When India offered foreign secretary level talks to Pakistan, it decided not to publicise the initiative until Islamabad had responded. But after a fortnight of secrecy, officials here went semi-public on Thursday despite the absence of a Pakistani answer. The reason: to tamp down a potentially damaging controversy over nomenclature.

Mindful of the terminological minefield that sub-continental diplomacy can be, the Indian offer was purposely vague and open-ended.

Pakistani hawks want nothing less than the immediate resumption of the composite dialogue — the multi-track process involving sequential meetings between different sets of officials on a full range of issues from Kashmir and Siachen to trade.

Indian hawks want no dialogue or at best, limited dialogue on one topic — terrorism.

Under the circumstances, the foreign secretary’s invitation was crafted to satisfy Islamabad’s demand for meaningful discussions that went beyond simply reviewing what progress had been made on the 26/11 case, while sidestepping the right-wing charge at home that India’s concerns about terrorism were somehow being diluted.

The problem, however, is that the foreign policy and security establishments in both countries are deeply divided. And that for every official batting for the resumption of engagement on either side, there are many who remain unconvinced and some who feel they should bat for the opposite goal.

On Wednesday, unidentified officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Islamabad told the Aaj channel in Pakistan that India had offered the resumption of the composite dialogue. The leak was untrue, but was perhaps intended to tempt the Indian side to issue a denial, thereby killing the process before it had a chance to begin.

A few days earlier, in fact, the waters had already been muddied in Delhi by fleeting Indian wire service reports of “highly placed sources” saying India favoured only “measured” contact with Pakistan and not the resumption of composite dialogue.

The identity of these “sources” was never revealed and the comments themselves never got much play in the Indian press after the MEA realised the damage they might cause.

But in Pakistan, where officials were mulling over how to respond to the Indian offer of “open-ended” talks on all outstanding issues affecting peace and security, this apparently categorical rejection of the composite dialogue by a “highly placed” official did not go down well. That may have been the reason for the ‘leak’ to Aaj.

As with all damage limitation exercises, however, Thursday’s controlled release of information could have unpredictable consequences. Reporters under pressure to cover the story but with no access to additional information get tempted to embellish the barebones narrative with either their own opinion or the views of ‘sources’. Stories can thus emerge which end up destroying the carefully crafted ambiguity that officials worked so hard to introduce in the first place.

As long as the rose is not named, each side can live in hope that it will prevail. But if the two sides start fighting over names at the first sight of a bud, chances are the rose will never bloom.

Given the difficulty with which the latest proposal has emerged out of a divided Indian establishment and the reluctance of a divided Pakistani establishment to do what it takes to build confidence, the battle over what to call the dialogue adds a new and unhelpful layer of complexity.

If the amount of skill and energy being expended on talks about talks about talks were saved up for when the talks really begin, who knows, the two sides might well end up making progress on issues that actually matter.

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Printable version | Dec 5, 2021 12:42:33 AM |

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