Losing the plot on India-Pakistan ties?

A diplomatic engagement requires a common script, more so the complex India-Pakistan relationship. Somewhere along the way, from Ufa to the cancelled talks in Delhi, it was clear that the plot was lost sight of and the management of the process was reduced to a rhetorical tit for tat

August 25, 2015 12:49 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:32 pm IST

The non-event of talks between the National Securtiy Advisors (NSA) of India and Pakistan, Ajit Doval and Sartaj Aziz, has generated a fair amount of heat but does it also throw any light on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s policy towards Pakistan? Crafting a credible Pakistan policy has been a challenge for every Indian Prime Minister since Independence, and each one of them, from Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru onwards, has tried to put his or her own personal stamp on it. Yet, it remains a complex relationship, saddled with the bitter legacy of Partition and four inconclusive wars, and mired in hostility which tends to flare up from time to time.

Mr. Modi is a strong and decisive leader backed by a solid majority in Parliament. He got off to a flying start with his “neighbourhood diplomacy” initiative inviting all South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) leaders to his swearing-in ceremony last May. Talks with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif opened the way for a meeting between the Foreign Secretaries to work out terms for a dialogue which had been stalled for over two years. However, in August 2014, the talks were called off after the Pakistan High Commissioner decided to go ahead with a much publicised meeting with the Hurriyat leaders. Meetings between Hurriyat leaders and Pakistani officials were hardly a new development, but clearly, the Modi government was marking a new red line for talks. The public manner in which the ultimatum was delivered to Pakistan left many wondering whether there had been a change of position on New Delhi’s part or whether it was merely ineptness. The cancellation of talks was followed by an intensification of firing incidents along the Line of Control (LoC), with India adopting a muscular retaliatory posture. Both Mr. Modi and Mr. Sharif were in Kathmandu for the SAARC summit in November 2014 but registered no progress regarding resumption of talks.

Ufa and its aftermath

Months later, in the run-up to the BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit meetings in Ufa in July, the Indian side sought a bilateral meeting. There had been signals that a policy review was underway — the message at the time of the Peshawar school massacre, Indian Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar’s visit to Islamabad and release of fishermen. Pakistan responded positively to the idea of a meeting between the Prime Ministers and by all accounts, it was a constructive dialogue. A crisp Joint Statement emerged and one of the outcomes was the scheduling of the meeting between the two NSAs; other decisions included meetings between the chiefs of the Border Security Force and Pakistan Rangers and Directors General of Military Operations; releasing fishermen in each other’s custody; facilitating religious tourism; and an agreement to discuss ways and means to expedite the Mumbai trial. The cancellation of the NSA-level talks has been accompanied by acrimonious exchanges leaving the future of other meetings uncertain.

At Ufa, the media was effectively managed, but thereafter, the atmospherics deteriorated. To tackle some hard line critics who are ideologically opposed to talks, a narrative was put out that at Ufa, India had successfully changed the terms of the talks. The careful diplomatic phraseology which held the statement together collapsed under the onslaught of the TV talk show gladiators. Debating points were scored about the fact that Kashmir was not mentioned, forcing Pakistan to clarify that it was implicit in the phrase, “all outstanding issues”. Both sides sought to claim victory, even before the NSA talks got underway. No visible effort was made to lower the pitch and after Mr. Aziz held his press conference in Islamabad on July 13, it was clear that Pakistan was uncomfortable and needed to reassert that there had been no dilution in its stand.

Lose-lose outcome Disagreement on the agenda for the talks was now becoming apparent and only exposed the fault lines. Details of dossiers being prepared by both sides to be handed over to the other side were leaked. Pakistan took three weeks to confirm the dates proposed by the Indian side, fuelling speculation. Meanwhile, the media continued to drive up expectations on both sides and eventually ended up determining the outcome. Some banked on the hope that the talks would take place because neither side wanted to be blamed for being the spoiler. But the process was too fragile and after back-to-back press conferences by Mr. Aziz in Islamabad and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj in Delhi a day prior to the visit, the die was cast.

Both sides accused each other of moving away from the terms of the dialogue set out in the Ufa joint statement. Ms. Swaraj emphasised that the Ufa joint statement mandated the NSAs to only discuss “all issues related to terrorism”, and second, that a meeting between Mr. Aziz and the Hurriyat leaders amounted to introducing a third party into the bilateral dialogue, which was contrary to the spirit of the Shimla Agreement. Accordingly, talks between the two NSAs could only go forward provided Pakistan gave an assurance on these two counts. Mr. Aziz pointed out that the Ufa statement also contained a willingness to discuss “all outstanding issues”, implying Kashmir, and advising against a meeting with Hurriyat leaders amounted to laying down preconditions which were unacceptable.

The fallout was that a diplomatic engagement was converted into an ‘us versus them’ battleground. The battleground outcome is a zero sum game with one side winning and the other losing. A successful diplomatic outcome is qualitatively different where both sides need to be satisfied with the outcome; it has to be a win-win situation. Second, a diplomatic engagement requires a common script whereas on a battle ground, conflicting narratives seek dominance. Trying to score points publicly easily becomes a blame game and the win-lose result becomes a lose-lose outcome. Somewhere along the way from Ufa to the talks in Delhi, it was clear that the plot was lost sight of and the management of the process was reduced to a rhetorical tit for tat.

Defining policy and managing tactics For nearly a quarter of a century, some form of dialogue with Pakistan has been pursued by various governments, both officially and through back channels. There have been ups and downs but the underlying conviction has been that India should manage its relations with Pakistan so that Pakistan’s hostility does not become an unwanted distraction. Since an all out conflict is ruled out, leverages to influence Pakistan’s behaviour have to be found through dialogue and engagement so that suitable messages can be conveyed and understood. Linked to this realisation is the conviction that the more successful India is in managing this troubled relationship, the more diplomatic space it provides us for pursuing our relations with other countries in our neighbourhood and beyond. Engaging in tit-for-tat hostility and rhetoric with Pakistan diminishes India’s standing and attracts unwelcome and gratuitous suggestions of third parties who are often prone to raising the notion of a nuclear flashpoint. The focus on confidence building measures and communication links, particularly after 1998 (following the nulcear tests), was undertaken with this clear purpose in mind. Admittedly, it has not been smooth sailing but when it has worked, it has made the LoC peaceful, increased India’s diplomatic leverage and also given political space to deal with the domestic aspects of the Kashmir issue.

This broad policy bears the individual imprints of each of the Prime Ministers — P.V. Narasimha Rao, I.K. Gujral, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Dr. Manmohan Singh — but also reflects a degree of consistency. It does not anticipate any breakthroughs with Pakistan but acknowledges that there are elements in Pakistan’s decision-making circles that would seek to sustain a hostile relationship with India. As long as these elements remain influential, a normal state to state relationship will elude us. Pakistan’s internal politics will need to change before these elements can be neutralised. In a democratic India while there is consensus on the need to have normal and peaceful relations with Pakistan, there is also a strong sentiment that Pakistan’s support to terrorism against India prevents normalisation. A dialogue should therefore be considered not an outcome but only a process. The process will take a long time to yield conclusive results but meanwhile it also expands the range of options in our political tool kit thereby increasing India’s leverage.

Anti-terror agenda There is a sentiment being voiced in Delhi that the cancellation of talks has been a setback for our anti-terror agenda. An opportunity to highlight our concerns regarding the presence of Dawood Ibrahim and other fugitives currently in Pakistan as well as recent terror strikes in Gurdaspur and Udhampur has been lost. When these incidents took place, we described them as provocations intended to scuttle the talks. Meanwhile, 91 incidents of ceasefire violations have been reported during the last five weeks. Resorting to retaliation can be a temporary response but hardly a decisive option. The Hurriyat has certainly received more media attention in recent weeks with their detention and release than was the case in recent years and this is not helpful for the political agenda of the Bharatiya Janata Party-Peoples Democratic Party government in the State of Jammu and Kashmir.

All this leads to certain inevitable questions. Is this the outcome that Mr. Modi wanted? Can dialogue with Pakistan be resumed? Will relations with Pakistan deteriorate in coming months? And if so, can this slide be managed without a dialogue? Under the circumstances, can he still visit Pakistan in 2016 for the SAARC summit, as committed in the Ufa statement? Did India lose an opportunity to confront Pakistan on the issue of terrorism? Does brinkmanship with Pakistan serve India’s interests? Or did events spin out of control, generating expectations which could not be realised? These are not easy questions but will need to be addressed if Mr. Modi has to put his personal stamp on a Pakistan policy that is both coherent and credible.

(Rakesh Sood is a former diplomat who was engaged with India-Pakistan talks during 1990-99. E-mail: rakeshsood2001@yahoo.com )

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