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Shadow-boxing to what avail?

The cancellation of the NSA-level talks between India and Pakistan is an indication that India’s foreign policy establishment has taken a back seat. While security issues remain paramount for the country, external relations are best coated with some amount of diplomacy

As ministers and diplomats negotiated their way out of the talks between the National Security Advisors (NSA) of India and Pakistan this week, they resembled nothing less than the family of a terminally ill and unpopular patient on life support, trying to decide just which one of them would pull the plug on the process started by the Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan, Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif, at Ufa in Russia in July.

As a result, when the end came, there was little to cheer about and no winners declared: not the Prime Ministers, who despite showing sagacity in making no public statements about it, had little to show for their efforts in Ufa. Not their chosen interlocutors, who were left handing out details of the dossiers they “would have handed over” at press conferences and through leaks to national media, instead of to each other, as they would have preferred. Not the diplomats and security officials, who had burnt the midnight oil preparing lengthy drafts on just what would be said, and what could be taken forward during the meeting between the NSAs of India and Pakistan, Ajit Doval and Sartaj Aziz. And not the Generals, who may have hoped for a lull in the constant thunder at the Line of Control (LoC) that has ensured that jawans are working double shifts, while people living there who after a decade of rebuilding homes, schools and raising crops, are having to flee their homes again.

Ironically, the only man seen waving a victory sign was Hurriyat leader Shabir Shah, but even he and the Kashmiri separatists invited to meet Mr. Aziz were hardly winners. While India seems to have established its ability to firmly control the international narrative and detain these men at will, Pakistan had hardly said anything on the issue. At a press conference held an hour after Mr. Shah’s detention, Mr. Aziz merely said, “We are disturbed about the arrest of Hurriyat leaders, but if India doesn’t call off the talks we will go ahead with them.”

Enforcing the red line

This was the line the government should have then caught onto, but in a manner akin to the cliched snatching of defeat, or a tie from the jaws of victory, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj sought to up the stakes. At her press conference hours later, she said it wasn’t enough that the Pakistan NSA was coming to Delhi despite it being made clear he wouldn’t get to meet the Hurriyat. He would now have to give India an assurance that he wouldn’t meet them, and that he wouldn’t discuss Kashmir when he met Mr. Doval — all with a crudely worded midnight deadline.

The first part was puzzling indeed. In the first place, once the government had demonstrated that it could and would detain the leaders on their arrival in Delhi, why would she need the assurance from Mr. Aziz that he wouldn’t meet them? Was Ms. Swaraj worried that the Pakistani NSA would drive over to the Intelligence Bureau safehouse they were held at in Delhi to catch a glimpse of them? Or that they would slip into Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit’s residence, where the reception for Mr. Aziz was to be held without the knowledge of the police? If instead she had accepted the gauntlet thrown by Mr. Aziz, and allowed him to come while ensuring that he didn’t meet with the Kashmiri leaders, the government would have had a more powerful precedent to enforce its “red line”. As a result, India missed a vital opportunity. Finally, Ms. Swaraj’s sentence that she was imposing “no conditions” on the talks, but that the talks would only happen under the condition that Mr. Aziz gave her assurances, must have sounded hollow even to her own ears.

The ‘K’ word

Pakistan, too displayed its ability for flawed logic and folly. The agenda of any meeting between leaders is a matter for those two countries to negotiate prior to a meeting. To begin with, if Kashmir occupies quite so much mindspace and heartspace for Pakistan, why didn’t it share some wordspace in the Ufa agreement? Second, if it was so easily understood that the NSAs would discuss all outstanding issues, and Jammu and Kashmir in particular, why didn’t Pakistan Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry insist with his Indian counterpart Mr. Jaishankar on clearer wording in the Ufa agreement? Finally, if “no dialogue is possible without Kashmir on the agenda”, why did Mr. Aziz feel the need to repeat it early and often, in every press conference, statement and interview he gave? Why not just arrive in Delhi and discuss his concerns with Mr. Doval? After all, the only terror India wants to discuss is that of groups in Pakistan that either originate or operate from Pakistan occupied Kashmir, so it is very likely that Kashmir would have been brought up. The LoC ceasfire violations, that most certainly would be discussed, also affect Kashmir the most. Mr. Aziz would do well to remember that when it comes to terror, it is Pakistan, and not India, that wants to discuss non-Kashmiri groups like the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, Baloch nationalist groups and political groups like the Muttahida Qaumi Movement.

The truth was neither side is as foolish as the answers to all these questions may suggest, but both were equally keen to call off the talks, so long as the other side would get the blame for it. As a result, the governments played an absurd version of “you hang up...no, you hang up” , with five press statements, two press conferences, followed by another press conference, and a series of tweets being exchanged between New Delhi and Islamabad over the course of two days. Interestingly, no one actually said they were calling the talks off.

We now stand at a point where the talks are off, and it is by no means clear that the meeting between Mr. Modi and Mr. Sharif on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly — that had been discussed at Ufa — according to officials, will fructify. As a result, the government has some breathing space to resolve some issues internally without the pressure of another high-level summit to worry about.

Reviving the ceasefire

To begin with, the LoC ceasefire must be revived. The last few months, and particularly the last few weeks, with over 160 violations on both sides combined, are of immediate concern. Indian troops and villagers living along the LoC should not have to pay the price for political tensions between the two countries. Despite using what government officials call “indiscriminate and unpredictable” return firepower including heavy mortar, there is no evidence that the Pakistani troops have flagged or that their fire on the LoC has waned. If this situation is not to be escalated, it is necessary to go ahead with the planned meetings in two weeks between border force chiefs (the Directors General of Military Operations as well as the Directors General of the Border Security Force and and Pakistan Rangers) to discuss a series of measures to put into place each time deadly fire is exchanged.

Next, it is necessary to restore the balance between security and diplomacy: the announcement and structure of the NSA talks seemed to indicate that India’s foreign policy establishment has taken a back seat on several important issues. In the past few months, first on China, then on Pakistan, and then more recently with the United Arab Emirates, it is Mr. Doval rather than Ms. Swaraj or Mr. Jaishankar who is being tasked with taking bilateral dialogues forward. While security issues remain paramount for the country, external relations are best coated with some amount of diplomacy. In the case of the Hurriyat for example, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) seemed to have been kept out of the central thinking, which would explain why when the reception for Mr. Aziz was first announced by the Pakistan High Commission, the MEA reaction was that this was seen as a “provocative” move aimed at calling off talks, and the government wouldn’t give in to Pakistan’s “objective”. However, just three days later, the government decided to fulfil that very objective, and make the Hurriyat meeting an issue over which “talks would be called off”.

The missing interlocutor

Finally, Mr. Modi must look for an interlocutor. Many in this government, including himself, have expressed their admiration for Israel, especially the country’s tough “zero-tolerance” position with its neighbours. Yet, few understand the worth of Israel’s foremost diplomat, Abba Eban, in achieving its success through diplomacy at the United Nations and with Israel’s Arab neighbours for whom he was the chief interlocutor, serving his country as Ambassador to the UN and the United States until 1959 and then as a minister, a member of the Knesset (Israel’s Parliament) until 1988. After the six-day war, Eban risked being called a traitor in his own country when he insisted that Israel should return territories occupied during the war in return for peace. “History teaches us that men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives,” he often said.

Obviously, there are no parallels here to the history and context of the Israel-Arab conflict, but it is important that the Modi government gives voice to its own possible Eban. If Mr. Modi is indeed intent on building a harder, tougher, less flexible image for India than the world has seen before, he will need an interlocutor who shares his commitment, but understands how to talk to Pakistan. This interlocutor must be able to convince the world of India’s position, but at the same time follow Eban’s most famous quote, “A statesman who keeps his ear permanently glued to the ground will have neither elegance of posture nor flexibility of movement.” At present, given the performance of his officials in the past week, he has none.

suhasini.h@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Aug 3, 2020 6:17:06 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/indiapakistan-nsalevel-talks-called-off-shadowboxing-to-what-avail/article7579421.ece

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