To talk or not to talk…

"Talk we must, but for any dialogue with Pakistan to be successful, New Delhi will have to be sensitive to Nawaz Sharif’s imperative that it be seen as a win-win outcome for both sides."   | Photo Credit: PTI

After the terrorist attack at the Pathankot airbase, a lot of discussion has taken place about whether or not the > India-Pakistan Foreign Secretary-level talks, scheduled for mid-January in Islamabad, should go forward or not. However, that should not be the question. The question should be whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has a policy on Pakistan, and if so, what? So far, each time Mr. Modi has taken an initiative for resumption of dialogue with Pakistan, his policy has been hijacked by establishing new ‘redlines’ which have been rubbed out and forgotten as and when a new opening appeared. As a result, there seems to be a lack of coherence in policy which appears to oscillate between ‘talks’ and ‘no-talks’. Clearly, the Prime Minister needs a more centred policy to take forward his agenda, a BeJAK policy — Between Jhappi and Katti.

During the last quarter century, after the end of the Cold War and as the Indian economy gradually began opening up, every Indian Prime Minister has faced a similar dilemma and has dealt with it in the context of India’s larger geopolitical interests and domestic priorities. Yet, there has been a remarkable degree of consistency in the approach they followed though each one of them — P.V. Narasimha Rao, I.K. Gujral, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Dr. Manmohan Singh also put their own distinctive imprint on how they approached the talks.

Twenty-five years and counting

Following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, jihadist terrorism had already reared its ugly head in Kashmir and tensions rose between the two countries. Pakistan was widely believed to have developed a small nuclear arsenal. U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser (NSA) Robert Gates paid a low-key visit to New Delhi and Islamabad in May 1990 after taking the Soviets on board. Subsequently, Prime Minister V.P. Singh approved Foreign Secretary-level talks which focussed for the first time on the issue of Confidence Building Measures (CBMs). Gradually, these talks took on a more structured character and the first CBMs were concluded in 1991. Other agenda items were gradually added on to the Foreign Secretaries’ dialogue, while the Directors General of Military Operations of the two sides focussed on finding a resolution for the Siachen glacier.

By the time Prime Minister Gujral took over, the Foreign Secretary-level talks had an established pattern which had survived a number of political changes in Pakistan. Together with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Mr. Gujral sought to put his own stamp on the dialogue process by putting it in the framework of an eight-point “Composite Dialogue”. Despite ups and downs in the political relationship when the dialogue got suspended, the basic structure remained intact. Different subjects were dealt with by the relevant Secretaries while the Foreign Secretaries directly dealt with the subjects of peace and security, including CBMs and Jammu and Kashmir, and also coordinated the process. Siachen was handled by the Defence Secretaries; Sir Creek by the Surveyors General; trade and economic relations by the Commerce Secretaries; and Tulbul Navigation Project/Wular Barrage by the Water Resources Secretaries. Terrorism and narcotics were tied up together and handled by the Home Secretaries while “people-to-people contacts” dealt with religious tourism, consular matters and cultural issues. Incremental progress was registered periodically though any breakthroughs on key issues were regularly held hostage by linking it to progress on other matters.

Two steps forward, two steps back

After the nuclear tests in 1998, Prime Minister Vajpayee soon realised that absence of dialogue between two nuclear armed neighbours locked in a hostile relationship would generate negative perceptions in the region and beyond. Following the meeting with PM Sharif in New York in September 1998, the announcement about a Delhi-Lahore bus service was made. Thereafter came > Mr. Vajpayee’s historic visit to Lahore on the inaugural bus journey where he used his oratory and poetry to convey a significant message to the people of Pakistan when he visited Minar-e-Pakistan to boldly state: “A stable, secure and prosperous Pakistan is in India’s interest. Let no one in Pakistan be in doubt. India sincerely wishes Pakistan well.” Even then there were many who accused Mr. Sharif of a sell-out and the Kargil war reflected the limits imposed by Pakistan’s Army on a dialogue process led by an elected government in Islamabad. The banquet in honour of Mr. Vajpayee at the Lahore Fort had to be delayed because of Jamaat-e-Islami protesters who went to Minar-e-Pakistan the following week to cleanse it with rose water because Mr. Vajpayee, “an apostate”, had stepped on the site which was set up to commemorate the decision to create Pakistan. Undeterred, Mr. Vajpayee continued with the Agra invitation to General Pervez Musharraf and when that failed, used coercion, diplomacy and international pressure to establish a ceasefire across the Line of Control (LoC).

Dr. Manmohan Singh inherited the Rao-Gujral-Vajpayee legacy. The ceasefire held as long as General Musharraf was in control. Lacking the political authority and the oratory of his predecessor, Dr. Singh used back-channel diplomacy to build cross-border trade and transport linkages across the LoC in Kashmir. These talks evidently made considerable progress on core issues of Kashmir and the LoC but lacking ownership on either side, ended up getting mired in the political quicksand in both countries. Changes in Pakistan’s domestic politics, in the Army, and the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan created a set of new short-term priorities for Pakistan in which India did not figure. Dr. Singh’s government went into a defensive mode during its last two years and the Foreign Secretary-level talks ended up being shelved. His speech, where he talked of a vision of an interconnected South Asia where you could have breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore and dinner in Kabul, was given concrete shape by his successor Mr. Modi on Christmas Day last year when he lunched in Kabul, had tea in Lahore with Mr. Sharif and was back in Delhi for dinner.

Putting realpolitik over redlines

During these years, there were a number of terrorist attacks which led to the derailment of talks but communication channels were always kept open. Each of Mr. Modi’s predecessors had a vision but the dialogue process was grounded in realpolitik. Each of them realised that relations with Pakistan could not be allowed to become a distraction from the primary task of sustaining a healthy economic growth rate and improving the political climate in Kashmir. Secondly, they were acutely conscious that tensions with Pakistan constrained India’s diplomatic space for wider engagement, by keeping it locked in an India-Pakistan construct in terms of external perceptions. None of them established arbitrary redlines that could become liabilities; instead they shared their thinking with all political leaders, cutting across party lines. Senior officials were often asked to provide background briefings to retired officials and foreign policy commentators so that expectations were not allowed to get out of hand and both the pace and outcome of the dialogue process was controlled.

Mr. Modi’s “neighbourhood first” policy got off to a good start with his invitation to all the regional leaders for his oath-taking ceremony in May 2014, and his Ufa meeting with Mr. Sharif to restart the dialogue was also received positively. However, both times, the follow-up talks were nixed by a shrill media forcing the government to retreat. The third time around, expectations were kept low-key by keeping the media at a distance, both at the two leaders’ meeting in Paris and the follow-up NSA talks in Bangkok. Clearly, the lesson about managing expectations had been understood.

Pathankot was not planned after Mr. Modi’s surprise visit to Lahore but is certainly intended to test his redlines again. The key difference is that this time, the communication channel between the NSAs seems to be working and it is highly likely that what is considered a prompt and adequate response by Pakistan has already been spelt out. Mr. Sharif’s call to Mr. Modi, his setting up of a joint investigation team to probe into the links of the Pathankot attackers with Pakistan, and most importantly, his statement on January 8 that “no terrorist and terrorist organisations would be allowed to use Pakistan’s soil for committing terrorism anywhere in the world” indicate that Pakistan would like the talks to go forward. This is not a new commitment; Gen. Musharraf had said the same to Mr. Vajpayee in 2004 but reiteration has some value.

Mr. Modi still needs to spell out his policy. He has shown that he is a risk-taker and his preference is for a personalised style of diplomacy. However, he should have realised by now that this runs the risk of converting each encounter into a zero-sum game. The dialogue, in order to deliver on the Modi government’s priorities, has to be perceived as a win-win outcome for both sides. For this, the Prime Minister has to understand that Pakistan cannot be seen to be giving in to Indian pressure as this becomes Mr. Sharif’s limitation. Domestically, for the opposition parties, engaging in political rhetoric is a cost-free exercise. The way to neutralise this is to reach out, as his predecessors have done. Only then will Mr. Modi be able to make his Pakistan strategy dovetail with his “neighbourhood first” policy, thereby stamping both with his own distinctive imprint.

(Rakesh Sood, the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation till May 2014, has also been First Secretary and Counsellor in India’s High Commission in Islamabad. E-mail: rakeshsood2001@yahoo.com)

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Printable version | Jan 29, 2022 4:48:36 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/To-talk-or-not-to-talk%E2%80%A6/article13999312.ece

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