Breaking the ice and avoiding a refreeze

A file photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Pakistani counterpart in Ufa.

A file photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Pakistani counterpart in Ufa.  

There will be more engagements with Pakistan, and at different levels, but New Delhi will have to change its tone to ensure that well-crafted diplomatic initiatives do not get reduced to a farce as the one at Ufa has become.

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi is discovering, somewhat to his discomfiture, managing relations with Pakistan is one thing but managing expectations about >India-Pakistan relations is a different cup of tea, because the two often adopt divergent trajectories. Every Indian Prime Minister, from Jawaharlal Nehru onwards, has had to deal with this challenge. However, it has only become infinitely more difficult today with the Indian media (and its Pakistani counterpart) seeking to convert every summit encounter into a limited-overs cricket match. A diplomatic negotiation only succeeds if the outcome is perceived by both sides as a win-win situation but this requires long-term planning and careful management. If either side makes it a zero sum game by firing up expectations for a quick victory, the dialogue quickly flounders.

Politics behind statement

On the face of it, the “ >Joint Statement” issued on July 10 at Ufa in Russia, after Mr. Modi’s meeting with his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit, is notable for its brevity and matter of factness. It states that the >two leaders met and “exchanged views on issues of bilateral and regional interest”. In the interest of promoting peace and development, they “are prepared to discuss all outstanding issues”. Both leaders also “condemned terrorism in all its forms” and agreed to cooperate to tackle this menace. Each of these phrases is loaded with meanings and interpretations evolved over the decades in the context of multilateral negotiations to steer clear of terms that were contentious, and became unacceptable to one or the other side in regional fora and the United Nations. “ >All outstanding issues” is shorthand for covering “Kashmir” just as “terrorism in all its forms” also covers “state sponsored terrorism”.

The five follow-on steps identified in the “Joint Statement” are precise and modest — the National Security Advisers (NSA) are to discuss “all issues connected to terrorism”; 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 26/11 attack trial, including additional information like providing [Mumbai attack mastermind Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi’s] voice samples”. Finally, >Mr. Modi also accepted Mr. Sharif’s invitation to visit Pakistan in 2016 for the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit. From all accounts, the meeting between the two Prime Ministers developed positively. Mr. Modi had realised that not engaging Pakistan was proving unhelpful. Having abruptly called off the Foreign Secretary-level talks last August meant that he had to find a way to get a dialogue going. The SAARC summit in Kathmandu last November came too soon after the cancellation of talks and the tit-for-tat shelling across the Line of Control (LoC). After Indian Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar’s exploratory visit to Pakistan early this year and a couple of phone exchanges, the decks were cleared. However, the old format could not be restored because it would signal business as usual. The media and the Opposition would describe Mr. Modi’s policy as “flip-flop” or even worse, a climbdown under (god forbid) U.S. pressure! So, the resumed dialogue had to have its focus on tackling “the menace of terrorism” and for this, India’s NSA Ajit Doval would be the most suitable person. Other issues such as religious tourism and the release of fishermen were humanitarian issues and would resonate well. Mr. Modi had emphasised the importance of “regional diplomacy” and even as he notched up successful visits to Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, he realised that resuming a dialogue with Pakistan, and where he could set the agenda, was necessary for ensuring India’s leadership in the region and image as a responsible major power.

Changes in Pakistan

Mr. Sharif had responded positively to Mr. Modi’s initial overture when he attended his swearing-in ceremony last May but subsequently felt let-down by the rather abrupt cancellation of Foreign Secretary-level talks in August. Nevertheless, Pakistan’s standing and position had since improved. Relations with the United States, China and Russia were moving in a positive direction and, most important, domestically, civil-military relations were on an even keel. A better understanding on tackling home-grown terrorism had developed between Mr. Sharif and Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif. Senior-level changes in the Pakistan Army had consolidated Gen. Sharif’s position. Tension on Pakistan’s eastern front was an unnecessary distraction which the Pakistan Army could do without, while it concentrated on “Operation Zarb-e-Azb” on its western front and sought to extract greater cooperation from an increasingly impatient Afghanistan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani in Kabul. Therefore, keeping the India-Pakistan border quiet was a positive development.

Both sides realised that issues like the Siachen glacier, the Sir Creek maritime boundary delimitation and Tulbul (Wullar barrage) navigation, which had been under discussion for decades were politically not ripe for solution. Therefore, resuming dialogue on these subjects would only become a repetitive exercise. In any case, this would also revert to the old “composite dialogue” started during Prime Minister I.K. Gujral’s days or the six-point and eight-point agendas that began during Prime Minister V.P. Singh’s time in mid-1990 and was carried forward by Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao.

Gladiators in the media arena
Apparently, no drafts for a “Joint Statement” at Ufa had been exchanged in advance by the two sides. However, since the talks had concluded positively, it was felt that it would be useful to put out a short “Joint Statement”. This would bind both sides to a common script rather than having each side carry out its own media briefings, which could easily lead to controversy. >Indian and Pakistani negotiators have faced the same question many a times during the last 25 years. Sometimes they took the view that it was better to do separate briefings; sometimes, they did a joint briefing and sometimes, they managed to produce a “Joint Statement” as Mr. Jaishankar and his Pakistan counterpart Aizaz Chowdhury did. Seasoned and accomplished diplomats, they delivered a statement to their bosses which faithfully reflected the decisions reached during the discussions, and, where needed, relied on the well-worn catchphrases that mark all India-Pakistan joint statements.

But in keeping the >“Joint Statement” business-like and crisp, they overlooked the gladiators who descended into the arena of the TV shows almost as soon as the “Joint Statement” was put out. Comparisons with previous statements were quickly made; an absence of phrases over-analysed; the implications of level of dialogues parsed threadbare; all with the aim of scoring quick diplomatic victories so that the exercise degenerated into a farce. Given that Mr. Modi faces an increasingly irate Opposition in the run-up to the next session of Parliament, government media handlers — presumably in the absence of high-level guidance as Mr. Modi was still travelling abroad — were quick to point out how India had scored over Pakistan. Kashmir was not mentioned (a victory for India), terrorism to be dealt with by the NSAs (a victory for India since everyone knows that Mr. Doval is a former ace sleuth), and access to voice samples (a victory for India).

The Pakistani response was predictable. It pointed out that diplomatic phrases like “all outstanding issues” and “terrorism in all its forms” included Kashmir and state sponsored terrorism. India had sought the meeting (a victory for Pakistan), Mr. Modi had committed to visit Pakistan for the SAARC summit (a victory for Pakistan), and additional information was to be provided by India regarding the 2008 Mumbai attacks (a victory for Pakistan). However, the genie refused to go back into the bottle and the Pakistan Army was unhappy. Eventually, three days later, Pakistan’s Foreign Policy and Security Adviser Sartaj Aziz took the stage to make it clear that the outcome at Ufa did not mark the beginning of a new dialogue process, and that Kashmir tops the list of outstanding issues. For good measure, he added that Pakistan would continue to provide moral, diplomatic and political support to its Kashmiri brethren, the NSAs would discuss Indian interference in Pakistan particularly in Balochistan, additional information would also cover progress on the investigations into the Samjhauta Express bombings in 2007, and there was no commitment on providing Lakhvi’s voice samples.

The Pakistani High Commissioner’s Iftar with Hurriyat leaders that had been postponed was resurrected as an Eid Milan event and recent LoC firings have again raised tensions. The chest-thumping protagonists on either side examined in terms of protocol how many steps Mr. Modi and Mr. Sharif each walked to greet the other. The Ufa moment had become an “ouch” moment for both sides. Instead of a win-win, both sides retired hurt and sulking.

Lessons for Narendra Modi

Neighbourhood diplomacy for a large country like India needs a lighter touch, and far more attention to managing expectations than has been in evidence during the last 12 months. We also need to understand that as the larger power, the Indian media resonates loudly in the region, often reflecting an insensitivity which generates a backlash. Mr. Modi’s media team has yet to understand this. There will be more engagements with Pakistan, and at different levels, but New Delhi will have to change its tone to ensure that well-crafted diplomatic initiatives do not get reduced to a farce.

From Mr. Narasimha Rao onwards, I have personally witnessed how he and his successors and their senior colleagues, used to keep key political leaders, including the Opposition, fully briefed; in parallel, senior officials used to provide background briefings to retired officials and foreign policy commentators so that expectations could be managed in terms of media projection. This ensured that both the pace and the outcome of the dialogue was kept under control, with an eye to the domestic political environment while taking into account the larger games being played on the geopolitical canvas. After last August, Mr. Modi understood the need for a dialogue with Pakistan. Hopefully, after Ufa, he will also understand the need to manage it in a more productive manner.

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

Why you should pay for quality journalism - Click to know more

Related Topics
Recommended for you
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Feb 18, 2020 9:14:38 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/for-more-engagements-with-pakistan-delhi-will-have-to-change-its-tone-to-ensure-diplomatic-initiatives/article7434825.ece

Next Story