In early May 2001, the then Foreign Secretary, Chokila Iyer, was meeting a group of foreign journalists based in Delhi to talk about the National Democratic Alliance government’s foreign policy. Inevitably, the question of India-Pakistan talks came up. Ms. Iyer was categorical — this was just two years after the Kargil conflict in which India had lost more than 500 soldiers. There was no evidence that Pakistan, where the General who instigated the conflict was now a coup-installed “Chief Executive” (self-appointed President from June 2001), had changed its policy on funding anti-India militancy, she said, and no talks could be expected for the “foreseeable future.” Yet, less than a month later, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee invited President Pervez Musharraf for the Agra summit from July 14 to 16, 2001.
In a few weeks, the discourse in India and Pakistan went from bitter acrimony to discussions about what the two leaders would eat and which hotel they would stay, as television crews swarmed General Musharraf’s ancestral Nehar Wali Haveli in Daryaganj in Delhi to discuss the Pakistani leader’s “deep links” to India. When the two ended their summit meeting abruptly a few weeks later, it all dissipated quickly, much like the fizzling out of the effervescence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reach-out to his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, in May with the cancellation of Foreign Secretary-level talks that were due in Islamabad this week.
Surprise starts and abrupt endings are now the hallmark of the India-Pakistan dialogue process, with similar results each time. Sometimes, terrorists fashion those results. In July 2006, the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s timetable for talks came to an end when Foreign Secretary-level talks were called off after the Mumbai train blasts. In November 2008, the 26/11 Mumbai attacks began when the Pakistani Foreign Minister was in Delhi for talks.
Even when terror attacks have not been able to deter the interlocutors, the end has been the same. In February 2007, Pakistan Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri came to Delhi days after the Samjhauta Express bombings; in September 2013, Dr. Singh went on with his talks with Mr. Sharif despite the Jammu Army camp attack; and in May 2014, Mr. Modi met Mr. Sharif despite the attack on the Indian Consulate in Herat. Even so, each of those engagements proved equally unsuccessful.
What the long and repetitive list shows however is India’s continued attempt at dialogue and Pakistan’s consistent acceptance of the process. Then where does the problem lie? Geographically, the nub of the problem lies in Pakistan itself. Despite its avowals, no government has succeeded in controlling the three forces based there that can derail talks at any point.
The first are the anti-India terror groups that operate from Pakistan-held Kashmir and also from Pakistani Punjab and Sindh such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba. In their testimonies during the 26/11 trial in Pakistan, officials there identified two locations of camps where Ajmal Kasab, who was hanged for the Mumbai attacks, were trained. Increasingly, these very groups threaten Pakistan too, and from the Marriott Hotel bombing to attacks on Army, Air Force and Naval bases, evidence on facilitators and Fidayeen training has often led to the Lashkar.
The second force is the Pakistani military. While both Indian and Pakistani troops exchange fire at the Line of Control, a sharp increase in attacks from the Pakistani side are often seen as a signal from Rawalpindi to the government in Islamabad, more than it is a signal to New Delhi, to go slow on the dialogue process. If anything, events of the past week in the Pakistani capital, with Mr. Sharif pitted against protests by opposition leader Imran Khan and cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri, have shown that the military has regained that upper hand over the civilian government there.
The third force, surprisingly, is the judiciary. Ever since the toppling of General Musharraf in August 2008, and of Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani in June 2012, it has been clear that justices in Pakistan can often play an effective, yet politically partisan role. While that situation is wholly an internal affair of the Pakistani state, it impinges on the India-Pakistan dialogue when it comes to the Mumbai 26/11 trial, which means a lot to every Indian citizen. No-one can tell courts anywhere to do their job, yet when a case of such importance is concerned, with evidence from so many sources, along with trials in both the U.S. and India, it is difficult to explain the delays, with repeated adjournments, judges transferred and even prosecutors handling the case and prosecution witnesses failing to show up.
On the Indian side, the forces that oppose talks can be counted on to react exactly as each of the Pakistani forces inimical to India would like them to. Therefore, the talks with Hurriyat leaders cannot be seen in isolation as the trigger for India's decision … ever since Mr. Modi’s SAARC outreach, he has faced criticism from more extreme members of his support base and those opposed to talks from within the government. It is not mere coincidence that so many former diplomats who spent careers carrying out dialogue were signatories to a petition to Dr. Singh last year, demanding that he call off dialogue with Pakistan. If anything, it is evidence of a resistance inside South Block to the kind of sudden initiatives announced by practically every Prime Minister of the past two decades, from Mr. Gujral to Mr. Vajpayee, Dr. Singh and Mr. Modi.
Given this history of such strong and implacable powers ranged against dialogue, it is a wonder if anyone even asks the question: is there a future to India-Pakistan dialogue? The answer is yes, if the two sides are able to drop the desire for grand and unexpected initiatives entirely, and put aside powerful symbolism for more boring substance.
Mr. Modi’s invitation to Mr. Sharif, though creditable and praiseworthy, never had the potential of substantive engagement, given its timing. Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit’s invitation to the Hurriyat leaders was an unnecessary one, and only meant to produce a desired photo-op, as Mr. Basit could have taken their input through less visible means as well.
There are areas where the two sides made considerable progress in the past two years, however, and these have been areas devoid of any grandstanding or the “carbon monoxide” (not oxygen) of publicity. The Home Secretaries, for example, have an agreed framework for a new visa regime between India and Pakistan. The Commerce Secretaries had negotiated the last mile in non-discriminatory market access, just short of Pakistan’s broken promise of Most Favoured Nation status for India. The past three months have seen an unprecedented level of engagement on possible power and fuel agreements, and energy transfers in the pipeline, that could be revolutionary for the region. A small start may even be made by the revival of the Joint Commission that last met in September 2012. The biggest challenge for both governments, then, is to break the repetitive cycle of past engagements.
To the persistent question of why there should be talks with Pakistan at all, a senior Union Minister this week gave the oft-repeated euphemism for “because it’s there,” which is “one can choose one’s friends but not the neighbours.” When The Hindu asked when such talks might be, a senior Pakistani government official replied, “Not for the foreseeable future.” Then again, we have heard those lines before as well.