Towards a silent backchannel diplomacy

As there is a downswing in bilateral relations between India and Pakistan, this is an opportunity for Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar to reshape the dialogue process

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:28 pm IST

Published - February 28, 2015 01:06 am IST

NO MORE SKIRMISHES: “Maintaining peace along the LoC should be a primary concern for India.” Army jawans near the LoC.

NO MORE SKIRMISHES: “Maintaining peace along the LoC should be a primary concern for India.” Army jawans near the LoC.

After taking over as Foreign Secretary, S. Jaishankar’s trip to Islamabad in early March, to resume the Indo-Pak dialogue, should be the most important for him. He has a credible record as former Ambassador in establishing good relations with China and the U.S.; will he be able to add an Indo-Pak feather to his cap?

As there is a recent downswing in bilateral relations between India and Pakistan, this is an opportunity for Mr. Jaishankar to reshape the dialogue process, making it credible and productive. Critics would point out that there is pressure from the U.S. on India to restart the dialogue, but there is a similar, perhaps an intense, pressure on Pakistan, too. Besides multiple visits by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to Islamabad, there have also been blunt messages from the U.S. to Rawalpindi to restart the dialogue process.

A second opportunity for Mr. Jaishankar, which is also a challenge, is related to the recent developments on Pakistan’s western border. Under Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani, there has been a substantial upswing in Afghan-Pakistan relations, including a possible dialogue with the Taliban.

The third opportunity for Mr. Jaishankar emanates from Pakistan’s domestic compulsions: a section within Pakistan talks about terrorism as an existential threat and links the problem to the skewed policies of Islamabad and Rawalpindi in using militants and jihad as a foreign policy strategy towards India and Afghanistan.

The fourth and most important opportunity is Afghanistan itself. Withdrawal of the U.S-led forces and the shift of global attention to Syria, Iraq and the Islamic State gives an opportunity for the countries in the region to come together.

Unfortunately, a section in India sees the improved Afghan-Pakistan relations in black and white. Should India see these two essentially as anti-Indian, or pursue them as a new opportunity, and try to leverage and enhance its own interests?

How can Mr. Jaishankar seize the opportunity and present a larger road map for an effective and credible Indo-Pak dialogue?

The idea of a composite Indo-Pak dialogue, as proposed in the 1990s, was a novel approach then. But how effective and relevant is it in 2015? Can a new compartmentalised approach help the process be more effective, and prevent the failure of one issue from affecting other issues?

From an Indian perspective, of the eight issues identified for composite dialogue, some are challenging and the rest are doable. There have been reports on how close India and Pakistan came together in resolving a particular issue, say, Siachen or Sir Creek. However, the composite nature of the dialogue has restricted both the countries in reaching spectacular success on these issues, as the nature of dialogue requires overall progress.

Perhaps, the Indo-Pak approach on the Indus Waters Treaty could be a model, where the dialogue is protected from larger bilateral developments. Such a process could help the two countries reach an understanding and even resolve the issue once and for all. It could also have a positive affect on other issues.

Big ticket items

For a successful Indo-Pak dialogue, there have to be a few big ticket items — political and economic — that will deepen the interaction and undermine vested interests, something similar to the role played by coal and steel in revolutionising post-World War II Europe. In South and Central Asia, there is an opportunity with gas and electricity. Two pipeline projects — Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) and Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) — have been going slow due to bilateral differences and lack of international support. With the U.S. working on a nuclear deal with Iran, and the Asian Development Bank having a renewed interest, IPI and TAPI can become the big ticket items.

Besides the gas pipelines, there has been great movement in establishing an electricity grid between Central Asia and South Asia, CASA 1000. The project initially focussed on Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but a right push could expand it to the rest of South Asia. And if pursued vigorously, it is also possible for Nepal and Bhutan to be a part of this grid. With the right momentum regionally, and with international support, gas and electricity could revolutionise South Asia.

What should be a formal Indian response to Pakistan bringing Afghanistan into the dialogue process, which is bound to happen?

There has been too much emphasis on Mr. Ghani’s overtures to Pakistan. India has its own leverage and Mr. Ghani is not the sole authority of Afghan political power. India still has influential friends and enjoys Afghanistan’s goodwill. The number of daily flights from Kabul to New Delhi, and the number of Afghan students from Chandigarh to Bangalore, will substantiate this.

Unfortunately, a section sees Mr. Ghani’s refusal to buy weapons from India as the only yardstick for the relationship between the two countries. If New Delhi is not pitching to be an Afghan security provider, and is more important in contributing to the Afghan economy and to its infrastructure, a clear redline can be established vis-à-vis the Indian presence and Pakistan’s interests. If Pakistan wants to walk more into Afghanistan, India should welcome it, as long as it does not affect its own interests.

Kashmir issue

Jammu and Kashmir has to be a primary component and the formation of a government led by the Peoples Democratic Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party should give an additional advantage to Mr. Jaishankar when he lands in Pakistan. There are already a few processes in place. Maintaining peace along the Line of Control and ensuring its sanctity should be a primary concern for India. Delhi’s strong resolve and hard response to the LoC violations has already jolted Pakistan.

Besides, the cross-LoC interactions, especially the movement of people and goods, should be made more effective. The opening of the Kargil-Skardu road is long pending. However, the cross-LoC openings will have to be selective; instead of opening more points for trade and travel (for example, across Mirpur, Gurez and Turtuk), the existing processes need to be made simplified for the movement of people and goods. Cross-LoC tourism has the potential to move beyond divided families and create multiple stakeholders among all the major communities and subregions of Jammu and Kashmir.

Finally, Mr. Jaishankar should attempt to establish links with those who call the shots in Islamabad and start a silent backchannel diplomacy. Rhetorically there can be a demand for transparency and accountability, but silent backchannel diplomacy will be more effective.

Obviously, none of the above will work if Pakistan’s establishment believes in continuing its strategy of using jihadis and militants against India.

(D. Suba Chandran is Director, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.)

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