The unmistakable negativity Why New Delhi’s approach to Track-II is wrong

I have always been puzzled by the Government of India’s unmistakable negativity towards track-II initiatives and conferences especially when Indian track-II interlocutors talk to their Pakistani counterparts. Given the fact that one of the major objectives of track-II initiatives is to feed into the official, track-I, thinking on key issues, the unreasonable reluctance of the Indian government to stay clear of track-II initiatives is frustrating. Don’t get me wrong, I am simply not arguing that the governments should play an ‘active’ role in the running of track-IIs, which will indubitably make them useless as they would invariably be accused of being “remote-controlled” by the government. What I am concerned about is the tendency of our babus to turn a blind eye towards the existence of track-IIs and their findings and even dissuade them from initiating any contact whatsoever with the other side.

The Indian government’s hesitation regarding track-two meetings manifests not only in its reluctance in recognizing their existence but also in, at least sometimes, actively discouraging their ability to function. They range from not granting visas to the participants from the counterpart country to sometimes instructing some of the participants, who are close to the government, to not participate in such meetings. In the last one decade that I have been part of various Indo-Pak track-IIs, I have come across a number of instances of this kind.

On the contrary, Pakistan has consistently been very forthcoming in accepting, promoting and being attentive towards various track-II initiatives. They have regularly provided hospitality for high-level track-II delegations from India. I remember visiting Pakistan in 2005 when Gen. Musharraff was at the height of his power there. He not only invited the entire Indian delegation to the Presidential Palace and discussed his formula for Kashmir for almost two hours but also readily granted our request to let us travel to the Pakistani side of Kashmir without a visa! That is smart diplomacy.

But what explains the Indian hesitation about favorably looking at track-II initiatives especially those between India and Pakistan? First of all, the Indian policy making systems, our famed babudom that is, are rife with nauseating levels of hierarchy which demonstrate extreme reluctance to part with information and summarily reject feedback from non-traditional sources. Add to it another drawback that plagues the Indian system – excessive levels of secrecy which prevents meaningful interactions between those in the bureaucracy and those outside. As a former insider puts it: “we respond and give information to only those writing our ACRs and who have the power to post/transfer us”.

India has also exhibited a traditional unease towards all sorts of “third party intervention” (even though it has tired to mediate between conflicting parties i.e. the Indian mediation during the Korean war). Be it the UN or the Americans, New Delhi makes it abundantly clear: no mediation is welcome. Indeed, despite the Indian concern about the infiltration of Pak-based terror groups into India and the regular violations of the ceasefire, New Delhi has consistently refused to accept the Pakistani demand to ask the UNMOGIP to investigate such issues. Post-colonial sensibilities are also part of the problem: how can the whites tell us or fund track-II people to tell what to do and what not to do! Finally, the Indian system of not allowing lateral entry into the ranks of the country’s bureaucratic decision-making process also prevents a healthy exchange of ideas between those inside the government and those outside: the government simply believes that there is no expertise outside of it!

Pakistan, on the other hand, has always wanted to tell the world of its diplomatic positions through whatever means available to it, be it third party mediation, public diplomacy or track-two initiatives. Moreover, there is a dynamic relationship between those inside the government and those outside of it. We get to see many more prominent and expert Pakistanis from outside the government and bureaucracy being appointed to important positions. Moreover, Pakistan suffers from less colonial hangover when compared to India.

For sure, this pig-headed Indian approach to track-two initiatives has been to India’s disadvantage. Indian diplomacy is often seen as arrogant, unwilling to be creative, unable to communicate and inadequate to take advantage of the newer mediums of modern day diplomacy.

But why should we focus on track-II diplomacy? Has it made any difference to anything at al? Let me give one example of how track-II diplomacy can make a difference. I was in Colombo this past week attending two sets of track-II meetings on India-Pakistan nuclear issues as well as military CBMs. The discussions were clearly not on political resolution of the outstanding conflicts but on the practical aspects of conflict management.

There was a clear shift in favour of doable CBMs from political rhetoric and puritanical positions. Part of this focus on practical solutions and the nitty-gritty of conflict management come from the nature of the projects as funded by various international funding agencies or governments. Funding agencies and governments are not interested in participants restating their states’ held positions, but what these meetings can achieve on the ground. This is in sharp contrast to what the two governments often do – engage in meaningless reiteration of their stated positions, which they have been doing for many decades! This to me is an eminent achievement of the ongoing track-II initiatives in the region.

I am not in any way suggesting that political resolution of outstanding conflicts is unimportant but that it is often useful to focus on the practical aspects of conflict management to travel towards the eventual political resolution of conflicts.