The thaw that wasn't

As widely anticipated meeting last month between the foreign secretaries of Pakistan and India did little to melt the diplomatic ice. That the officials met at all after a 14-month hiatus was billed by some as progress. In reality the Delhi talks did not even live up to modest expectations of improving the tenor of the bilateral engagement. The atmospherics turned out to be as fraught as the differences over substance.

The separate press conferences addressed by both foreign secretaries made this abundantly clear. Nirupama Rao’s hectoring tone prompted a sharp response from Salman Bashir who said Pakistan needed no sermons on terrorism from India.

The two sides were unable to reconcile differences over the timing, modalities and agenda for future talks. Even on process the talks reinforced rather than narrowed the chasm. This reinforced the unedifying start-stumble-stop pattern of diplomatic engagement that has long characterised relations. The Delhi encounter may also have ended up hardening positions.

No date was set for the next meeting. Pakistan proposed a time-bound roadmap of meetings leading to a summit-level meeting at the SAARC conference in Bhutan in April where the prime ministers of the two countries could announce a resumption of the composite dialogue that encompasses a comprehensive eight-point agenda.

The Indians stuck to their position and insisted that the time had not come for a resumption of the formal peace process. Delhi proposed a graduated, step-by-step approach entailing meetings at the foreign-secretary level to focus on terrorism. Delhi also reiterated that any renewal of the composite process would be conditioned on progress on the terrorism issue.

The inability to reconcile these clashing visions of how the future dialogue should proceed meant that the diplomatic stalemate continued. The discussions turned more into a re-statement of positions by both sides. The Indian side only wanted to discuss terrorism. This indicated that Delhi envisaged future talks to be recast around one issue.

Indian officials also handed over three dossiers calling for access to the under-trial Mumbai attack suspects and action against individuals alleged to be hiding in Pakistan. An exasperated Salman Bashir later described the contents of these dossiers as more ‘literature’ than evidence.

Pakistan’s principal focus was on Kashmir and the water issue among other disputes. A paper on the water issue was handed over to the Indian side. The Pakistani side also made it clear that Islamabad sought relations based on sovereign equality and mutual respect.

The Indian refusal to go beyond what their officials had been publicly stating for the past year raises important questions. What does Delhi expect to get out of the bilateral engagement if it seems unwilling to let the process lead to a full-fledged, structured dialogue? What use do the talks serve for the Indians?

The first objective may have much to do with increasing international pressure for a resumption of Pakistan-India talks. Urgings for a renewal of dialogue from the world’s key capitals, especially Washington, had increasingly made Delhi’s no-talks stance untenable and unsustainable. So establishing what Indian officials call ‘measured contact’ with Islamabad serves to defuse that pressure and make India look reasonable without yielding anything.

Two, Delhi may want to use the talks not as a means of narrowing differences or building common ground but of mounting pressure on Pakistan to comply with its demands. From this perspective every engagement outside a structured framework gives Delhi an opportunity to amplify its terrorism mantra, without having to accommodate any of Pakistan’s concerns.

Unstructured dialogue becomes the means to apply pressure and shift the onus on to Pakistan rather than engage in problem-solving. Talks, as several Indian commentators have pointed out, give India a tool and leverage on the terrorism issue which its previous no-dialogue posture didn’t.

In this diplomatic strategy the resumption of full-fledged, broad-based talks is used as a ‘trump card’ and offered as a reward in exchange for concessions by Pakistan. Islamabad’s firm rejection of a dialogue for dialogue’s sake should have reminded Delhi that using talks as leverage will not work.

Another dimension of the second objective could be to use the talks as a political prop for grandstanding at home. Taking a hard line with Pakistan in a blaze of media publicity helps to burnish the Congress Party’s credentials of being tough on terrorism. But rather than yield the desired political dividend this stance has failed to blunt the fierce attack mounted on the government by the opposition BJP for agreeing to talk at all to Islamabad.

This was evident immediately after the talks from the face-off in the Lok Sabha between opposition leader L K Advani and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The verbal sparring also served to underscore the confusion in the government mind about its rationale for the talks which in turn explained the feeble defence that Mr Singh put up in parliament.

Whatever Delhi’s calculations in pursuing ‘incremental’ or selective engagement, differences over the scope and framework of the dialogue promise a protracted diplomatic minuet between the two countries entailing more talks about talks. With the very terms of the engagement in contention prospects do not appear promising for the next meeting whenever it takes place.
If Delhi insists on unilaterally determining the frequency and content of the bilateral process Islamabad will be pressed to calibrate its response accordingly. Already it has made it plain that the terrorism issue should not dictate the agenda. And that it is not willing to settle for process at the expense of substance.

What is also certain to complicate fraught relations is the intimidatory environment being fostered by India’s enunciation of dangerous military doctrines as well as provocative military exercises. Within days of the Delhi talks Indian fighter jets pounded mock enemy targets close to the border in an exercise witnessed by the country’s president. Its timing and intent was not lost on Pakistan.

In this backdrop the immediate outlook for Pakistan-India relations is marked by uncertainty with ties prone to crisis. Three scenarios can be postulated for the near term. The first is a prolonged diplomatic deadlock or standoff with no mitigation of mutual suspicion and a risk of confrontation accompanied by a zero-sum approach to ties. In this scenario erratic or sporadic dialogue becomes a means to score points, not reduce tensions. It is also the most volatile scenario for its potential to relapse into an escalation of tensions, heightening the risk of an uncontrollable crisis.

The second scenario is one of managed tensions. In this differences and disputes continue in a no-war, no-peace situation but where both political will and diplomatic means are available to ensure tensions do not spin out of control. This helps to avoid a confrontation or breakdown in the relationship. This scenario provides space for normalisation of some aspects of the relationship. For part of their troubled history Pakistan and India were able to evolve such a regime but this has always alternated with periods of heightened tensions, confrontation and conflict.

The third is the most desirable scenario but in the immediate future the most improbable. In this both countries adopt a problem-solving approach and engage purposefully to find a negotiated resolution of their disputes while identifying and building on areas of convergence in an effort to achieve a strategic equilibrium. Efforts are directed at confronting and addressing the causes not the symptoms of the conflicts between them. This is the scenario that is urged by the compulsions of the region’s nuclearisation especially as strategic relations between the two neighbours remain undefined and potentially unstable. It is also the only model of relations that can deliver durable peace.

For now Pakistan-India relations have reverted to the wearingly familiar pattern of the first scenario with all its attendant risks while the costs of non-resolution of disputes continue to mount for both nations.
(The writer is a former Pakistan envoy to the US and the UK)
-(Courtesy: The News)