Another barren engagement

India & Pakistan lack decisive leadership to grapple with hard issues hindering bilateral relationship

Perhaps nothing could explain better the net productivity of periodic bilateral diplomatic engagement between India and Pakistan than parrot-like repetition that both the countries agreed upon the ‘need for exploring’ further engagement to resolve outstanding issues between them. Its latest edition came after the two foreign secretaries, Nirupama Rao and Salman Bashir, met at Thimpu, capital of Bhutan, on the sidelines of the meeting of the standing committee of the South Asian Association of Regional Co-operation (SAARC) on Sunday. It was in April, 2010 that Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani had met, apparently, to agree upon continuation of the dialogue process. Foreign ministers SM Krishna and Shah Mehmood Qureshi then met in Islamabad in July last year but only to cause more bitterness as a result of the latter’s undiplomatic statement after the meeting. Quite evidently, nothing tangible was discussed and all that was agreed upon was that Qureshi would be visiting New Delhi some time by January 2011. More or less same is true of the meeting held by the foreign secretaries at Thimpu on Sunday. Ironically, both sides made identical noise about their shared desire to keep talking in pursuit of finding solution to the host of mutual problems affecting their bilateral relationship.

Even so, it was relatively less abrasive tone of their statements which indicated possibility of early resumption of regular process of dialogue. This process, snapped abruptly after the Mumbai attacks in November 2008, continues to remain in the limbo. India’s flat refusal to re-engage on the ground that Pakistan was not doing enough to punish those accused in the Mumbai attacks posed the biggest hurdle towards resuming the composite dialogue. That format appears to have been all but given up. Instead, the officials on the two sides have been working an alternate road map to resumption of the dialogue process. Meanwhile, Pakistan discovered a useful tactical weapon to replicate India’s negative approach. Pakistan quickly pounced upon the leeway offered by unearthing of organised ‘saffron’ terror network within India in relation to various incidents including the dastardly attack on the Samjhuta Express train. Since then it has been more or less hurling back each and every demand made by India in connection with 26/11. On both sides there appears to be almost equal resistance to breaking any new ground. Net result is that the resumption of purposeful substantive dialogue has become a hostage to this one-upmanship.

To what extent this course is determined or influenced by compulsions of domestic politics in India and Pakistan is not so easy to determine although the fact remains that this has always been and is likely to remain as a major stumbling block. Observance of ‘Kashmir solidarity day’ on February 5 across Pakistan-administered Kashmir, not so long after BJP’s Ekta Yatra (to Lal Chowk) on January 26, provides a measure of the rising political temperature over ‘Kashmir’ as well as over the larger issue of India-Pakistan relationship. Political and numerical fragility of the regimes in New Delhi and Islamabad tends to aggravate this phenomenon. That is the main reason why the decision taken by the two prime ministers in April last year to resume substantive dialogue has vanished into the thin air. Back channel engagements held in the intervening period have so far not helped either.

India-Pakistan engagement has become absolutely imperative in the context of the tenuous situation prevailing in Jammu and Kashmir. New Delhi appears to be convinced that status quo can no longer serve its purpose and that some fresh initiative was called for to assuage anger and alienation in J&K. But its attempt at going solo and seeking a way out does not seem to be making any headway because Pakistan happens to be a key factor in achieving even a minimum level of stability and normalcy. On the other side too the PPP regime has been piling up its load of problems many of which could be tackled by engaging with India. Significantly, though the present regime has disowned Musharraf legacy it has chosen not to jettison all that was achieved as a result of that between 2004 and 2008.

Until and unless both the countries realise the folly of continued animosity and appreciate need for purposeful engagement meetings like the one held at Thimpu on Sunday are unlikely to produce any result.