Getting the talk atmospherics right

Talks between India and Pakistan suffer from certain inbuilt defects. India’s desire to up the ante for talks stems from a combination of international and domestic pressures. In contrast, Pakistan has far fewer stakes in the outcomes.

August 28, 2015 12:21 am | Updated March 29, 2016 05:48 pm IST

In the meeting in Ufa, Russia, between the Indian and Pakistani Prime Ministers, Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif, held on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation conclave in July 2015, the leaders agreed to, among other things, talks being held in New Delhi between the National Security Advisers (NSA) of India and Pakistan, which was “billed” as the most important takeaway. However, no one in India — possibly no one in Pakistan as well — should mourn the demise of talks that were not held in the end. Strident rhetoric emanating from both capitals, which was further embellished by the media in both countries, had threatened to convert the talks into a “theatre of the absurd”. Hence, it was almost providential that Pakistan called off the talks.

Talks between India and Pakistan suffer from certain inbuilt defects. India, far more than Pakistan, has always been keen to engage in direct talks with the latter. Pakistan prefers instead to talk to the rest of the world, if only to accuse India of perfidy, especially when it comes to Kashmir.

Pressures and outcomes India’s desire to periodically up the ante for talks stems from a combination of international and domestic pressures to which India succumbs from time to time. Much of the international pressure comes from lobbies in the West, including the United States. The domestic peace offensive tends to be equally persuasive in pushing the envelope regarding holding talks. Pakistan has far fewer stakes, or for that matter qualms, about the outcomes where talks are concerned. Hence, it has far greater latitude in this regard, including of sabotaging talks if and when they are held. Pakistan’s real problem is that it is the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Army that determine when to talk, and even on how to marshal arguments, often with little regard to the truth.

Of late, there has also been an unfortunate trend of the Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan holding bilateral meetings on the sidelines of global meets or events — whether they relate to issues that are of economic and strategic importance or on any other aspect. This is accompanied by pressures for significant outcomes, irrespective of whether the times are propitious for such talks or the regional and geo-political situation lends itself to holding such talks. Preparations tend to be a casualty in these circumstances and, inevitably, such meetings result in less than favourable outcomes. Prime Ministerial meetings in recent years — Lahore (1999), Agra (2001) and Islamabad (2004), during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s time; Havana (2006) and Sharm el-Sheikh (2009), during Dr. Manmohan Singh’s time; and now Ufa (Narendra Modi), are best remembered for what they failed to achieve than for their results.

The reasons are fairly obvious. Operating under the glare of international observers and the world media, pressures are generated to come up with path-breaking initiatives. These result in ignoring reality and real concerns which can only be circumvented through careful and detailed groundwork, including preparation of position papers and the like. Without this, possibilities of forward movement are indeed limited and more likely doomed. Nevertheless, attempts do, and will continue. Intrinsic to this is an element of grandstanding that leaders indulge in — an essential concomitant of summit-level diplomacy.

With the announcement of the NSA-level talks, without due preparations being made, it might have been anticipated that it contained the seeds of its own failure. Furthermore, statements and agreements reached between the heads of government require careful vetting so as to leave no scope for differing interpretations, as has arisen in the present instance. This is especially important when the Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan meet since only a very small window of opportunity exists.

The timing of the initiative was again rather unfortunate. By its constant shelling across the Line of Control, Pakistan had already demonstrated that it was in no mood for talks. Subsequent to the announcement of NSA-level talks came the terror attacks in India — in Gurdaspur (July 2015) and Udhampur (August 2015) — which only seemed to reinforce Pakistan’s intentions. The Pakistani High Commissioner’s “high jinks” later, and the Pakistan NSA Sartaj Aziz’s insistence on holding talks with the Hurriyat prior to the NSA-level talks, further confirmed Pakistan’s disinclination for holding talks.

Terror strikes and Kashmir Hence, India, as the prime mover of the talks, should have taken particular care to deny Pakistan an opportunity or excuse to derail the talks. The very fact that Pakistan agreed to “talk about terror” at the NSA level, which would have given India an opportunity to put on the table factual details of Pakistan’s failure to deal with terrorists on its soil — including not taking action against those responsible for the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack, such as its mastermind Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi — should have alerted India about Pakistan’s possible perfidy.

Presuming that India wanted the NSA-level talks to succeed, then India’s logic of trading charges even before the talks were held — which was carried out through the medium of “leaks” from voluminous dossiers prepared by India to confront Pakistan — was a flawed one. It was also clearly futile to try and pit India’s carefully prepared documents against Pakistan’s “tissue of lies”, as there could be no winners. Rather than confront Pakistan with these facts, India would have done well to put forward ideas and concepts that would try and help narrow the differences and keep the door open for another round of talks at a more propitious moment.

Again, India must have been extremely naive to believe that there could be an India-Pakistan dialogue without Pakistan making Kashmir its centerpiece, even if it did not form part of the Ufa agreement, as stated by the Union Minister of External Affairs and Overseas Indian Affairs, Sushma Swaraj. The “K” word is a part of Pakistan’s DNA, and anyone who has dealt with that country over the past half a century, would know that Kashmir is always the “400 pound gorilla” in the meeting room. India should have anticipated this and resorted to some flanking moves of its own to ensure that the talks did not get derailed. This smacks of a “suspension of belief” about the nature and record of the Pakistani state, and a case of gross amnesia on India’s part.

India had more to lose by the talks not being held. In the short term, Pakistan has obtained a fair idea of how much India knew about developments in Pakistan, including the whereabouts of India’s No.1 fugitive, Dawood Ibrahim. India’s hope that the talks would pave the way for a conducive climate in which some of the critical aspects of terror could be addressed, has, meanwhile, proved to be a non-starter. It has left Pakistan laughing all the way to the Arabian Sea. The more serious casualty is the setback to any such future problem-solving approach. In all this, India seemed to come out second best.

Gains for the ‘sword-arms’ There are several other negative fallouts as well from the aborted NSA-level talks. Both factions of the Hurriyat — Pakistan’s acknowledged “fifth column” — have gained a degree of prominence when their fortunes were almost at their nadir. This constitutes a setback to India’s efforts over the years to marginalise them. It will give Hurriyat supporters fresh grist to indulge in violent demonstrations in places like Srinagar and Baramulla. The recent spurt in Islamist radicalisation in the Valley is also likely to get a fillip and become infused with new vigour.

Pakistan-based terrorist organisations like the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) can also be expected to exploit the so-called breakdown in relations, and India should brace itself to confront a fresh wave of terror attacks. As it is, the graph of militancy in Jammu and Kashmir has been going up of late, and the latest events should aggravate matters. The LeT, being the recognised “sword-arm” of the ISI and the Pakistani state, will be the main gainer.

Meanwhile, there are several lessons to be learnt from the latest “mishap”. Negotiations with Pakistan, especially at senior levels, clearly demand more careful thought and planning. Talks should not be launched on the basis of pressure exerted by those on the periphery, and from those who constantly “applaud” India’s determination to “talk on terror” despite Pakistan’s belligerence. Detailed planning for the success of any such talks should include measures to minimise the fallout if talks fail. Every opportunity should be provided, if talks fail, to revive or restart them at an appropriate time. Most important, talks at this level need to be held when the regional and geo-political situation is suitable for negotiations, and Pakistan demonstrates some inclination to resort to negotiations, rather than engage in provocations.

(M.K. Narayanan is a former National Security Adviser and former Governor of West Bengal.)

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