Dangerous disengagement

By putting off bilateral dialogue, India is missing the opportunity to engage with the changing reality of Pakistan’s power structure

December 23, 2013 12:56 am | Updated 12:56 am IST

The most alarming part about the exchange of words between Indian and Pakistani leaders this month was, perhaps, the lack of alarm bells ringing. After all, to have both Prime Ministers speaking of war in their statements should itself have been a matter of concern. Yet, even as Nawaz Sharif was quoted by reports as having referred to the possibility of a “fourth Indo-Pakistani war over Kashmir” and Manmohan Singh responded to say “there was no such possibility of Pakistan winning such a war”, few were even surprised, let alone worried. Mr. Sharif’s office denied the reported remarks and suspended three information service officers over the “misquoted leak” but it was too late to help defuse the already tense situation between the two sides, something a simple phone call between the prime ministers may have been able to set right.

But the phone lines between New Delhi and Islamabad have been put on hold, and — far from there being any worries — both their governments seem extremely complacent about the fact that the “comprehensive” (formerly “composite”) dialogue isn’t being resumed. In Pakistan, efforts towards directly engaging with India have been put off until after the general elections in 2014, while in India, the government has decided that engaging with Pakistan requires political backing from the ruling party as well as the Opposition, which it lacks, especially given that Pakistan’s military establishment retains its ‘veto’ on better ties with India. As a result, all aggressive statements from Pakistan’s leadership are dismissed as the voice of Sharif’s “military masters”, while in Pakistan, India’s leaders are seen simply “upping the rhetoric” ahead of elections. Neither assumption is accurate, but is leading to a dangerous period of disengagement that neither India nor Pakistan can afford to prolong.

The biggest danger from such disengagement is the damage to India’s leverage in negotiating with Pakistan. When Manmohan Singh met with Nawaz Sharif in New York for example, the one takeaway announced by officials was that DGMOs on both sides would meet and take steps to defuse the tensions that erupted at the LoC after the killing of Indian Jawans in August. It took three months and the changing of the Pakistan Army chief for that meeting to even be scheduled, despite several Indian reminders. The meeting will come after a year which has been the worst for the India-Pakistan ceasefire, with the Army reporting 149 ceasefire violations by Pakistan — higher than in the past eight years since the ceasefire agreement and more than the past two years put together — this year .

On another front, Pakistan’s government is showing little movement on bringing the men accused of planning and directing the 26/11 Mumbai attacks to justice. Despite Prime Minister Singh and every other leader having made this the first point on the Indian agenda during meetings, the trial against the Lashkar-e-Taiba is yet to be fast-tracked. Instead, it has been adjourned more often than the case has been heard, and the judge in the trial has been changed an unprecedented five times since March 2012. It is necessary that for the trial to be taken to its conclusion the court now hearing it accept not just the testimonies of officers on the LeT camps where Ajmal Kasab and the other gunmen were trained, but also the documents taken by the Judicial commission that visited Mumbai last month. Much will depend on the prosecution in the case, and on a push from the government that has made ambiguous statements in the case. In an interview to CNN-IBN last month, outgoing High Commissioner Salman Bashir spoke of India’s focus on the pace of the trial as a “fixation”, holding out little hope for an early or conclusive end to the trial. While the delay is a continuing worry for India, any move by the judge to dismiss the charges against the seven men charged, including LeT operations chief Zaki ur Rehman Lakhvi, would be disastrous for India-Pakistan relations.

Erosion of progress in ties It is necessary to see these as evidence of increasing aggression on the part of Pakistan when dealing with India, and it may also be time to recognise that India’s leverage has considerably reduced amongst policymakers in Pakistan due, in part, to the lack of bilateral contact between the two. In fact, if the secretary-level dialogue is not resumed by elections next year (allowing a few more months while the new government settles), there will have been a two-year gap in talks between the foreign ministries and others in New Delhi and Islamabad. Already, that gap has meant that the advantage from the big strides made on trade — by the Commerce Secretaries last September — and in the dialogue on visas — by the Home Secretaries last December — has fallen by the wayside.

Finally, by putting off bilateral dialogue, South Block is missing the opportunity to engage with the changing reality of Pakistan’s power structure. Since his election in May this year, Nawaz Sharif has been beaten back on many of his initiatives and has essentially been treading water vis-à-vis other constitutional authorities, namely the military and the judiciary. But that is all about to change, as columnist Mariana Babbar recently wrote: “As the day breaks on 2014, Pakistan will have not only a newish parliament, a democratically-elected prime minister and a nominated president, but also a new Chief Justice (Tassaduq Jillani), joint chiefs of staff committee chairman (Lt. Gen. Rashid Mahmood) and Raheel Sharif, the new Army chief”.

Sharif gets assertive Already, Mr. Sharif is testing the new space he has — in the past week, he has turned around no less than four diplomatic appointments, including that of Foreign Secretary and High Commissioner to India, replacing the relatively junior career diplomat Syed Ibne Abbasi with Pakistan’s Berlin envoy Abdul Basit for the New Delhi posting. Mr. Basit, who enjoys the establishment’s backing, had, in fact, to be accommodated after Mr. Sharif decided to appoint another officer, Aizaz Chaudhury, instead of him as Foreign Secretary. Many have remarked on Mr. Sharif’s choice of army chief and his having passed over more senior Generals favoured by General Kayani as being another example of the PM’s muscle-flexing. Others are now pointing to the scheduling of the DGMO meeting, something the Pakistan army has resisted so far, as being further evidence of Mr. Sharif’s assertiveness, even as he dispatched his brother and Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif with the message.

While Pakistan’s security situation remains a matter of concern, it has also entered a period of relative calm, as has the economy. This year, the Karachi Stock Exchange was declared one of the world’s best performing markets, with a rise of more than 40 per cent, giving Mr. Sharif a breather and India new opportunities to expand its horizons. Even as Mr. Sharif continues to attempt to find his feet, however, it is worth noting that India and Afghanistan are heading for periods of relative flux, with elections planned in both countries next summer and the ISAF forces’ proposed pullout later in the year.

India and Pakistan have often made the mistake of delaying engagement with the idea that it will buy them time, that Pakistan’s civilian government needed more time to win over military approval, or that India’s government needed time to build political consensus on the issue. On every occasion, they have been proven wrong, whether it was about General Musharraf’s decision to put off a resolution along the lines of the four-step formula in 2007 or, indeed, about Manmohan Singh’s decision to hold off on final talks on Sir Creek in 2008. Each time, it is those opposed to the peace process — anti-India jihadi groups like the LeT or those within the Pakistani establishment — who back them, who have used that time to halt the process by planning another attack at the LoC or inside India. It is necessary to remain vigilant on both counts, even as the two sides talk. For Dr. Singh, keeping his promise of visiting Pakistan or opening up of the borders may be a far-off dream today, but restarting the dialogue process is still within grasp, especially if he heeds the former American president who said, “You may delay, but time will not”.

(Suhasini Haidar is Foreign Affairs Editor, CNN-IBN)

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