India, Pakistan have only six more months to make something of their current engagement
Is ongoing phase of India, Pakistan engagement reaching a dead-end? The answer is yes. More so, after the failure of the two countries to make a headway on Siachen at their recent defence secretary level talks. The neighbours ended up making their often rehearsed boilerplate statement on the dispute. New Delhi demanded authentication of the current troop positions on the glacier and Islamabad sought a return to the positions before 1984 when India rushed in to occupy some snow-bound strategic heights. There is similarly little progress on other issues and apparently least on Kashmir. This, when the governments in the two countries are nearing the completion of their respective terms in office.
Pakistan is going to polls in 2013 and the country will go into the election mode by the end of this year. In fact, Islamabad has already been witnessing some play of the electoral politics with the political rise of the legendary cricketer Imran Khan. Similarly, the parliamentary elections in India are scheduled to be held in 2014. And by the mid-2013, the government in New Delhi will have its eyes firmly fixed on the polls, with its each move dictated by the need to appeal to a wider constituency.
This scenario will hardly leave any scope for a headway on any of the issues, even the apparently less complicated one’s like Siachen. So, all that India, Pakistan have to make some success of their current engagement is another six months, beyond which their ability to work out an agreement on any issue will be hugely circumscribed. But considering they are unable to build an understanding even on Siachen, the talks on which showed a lot of promise to start with, there is little hope of the progress on other issues, or in particular the larger Kashmir issue.
All is, however, not lost. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has decided to make a last stand on his expected visit to Pakistan. In his recent meeting with Pakistan president Asif Ali Zardari in New Delhi, Singh expressed his keenness to visit Pakistan before his current term ends. However, he wants “something solid” to emerge from the visit. If this visit has to come through, it should happen in this year only. This again looks unlikely considering there is little indication of any build up towards a breakthrough on any issue. The public opinion in the mainland India is not in favour of any understanding with Pakistan. The discourse in New Delhi continues to be Mumbai-centric and issue to be primarily sorted out in the bilateral dialogue is Islamabad’s support to militant groups. There has been little effort by UPA-II to modify this discourse and build an opinion favourable to an agreement with Pakistan.
Singh’s visit, even if it comes through, looks set to be yet another photo-op. In the next two years the two countries will be too pre-occupied with their internal politics to engage productively. The neighbours have once more lost the opportunity to redefine their relationship, their second such chance since in the last decade. Earlier, New Delhi chose to defer its response to the former Pakistan president General Pervez Musharraf’s four point proposals until it was too late. General’s proposals offered an imaginative way out on Kashmir and if responded with commensurate earnestness by New Delhi, there was every chance of a settlement on Kashmir.
As for the future dialogue between the two countries, there are many major geo-political factors that the region has to contend with before it goes ahead. US exit from Afghanistan will be one of the most significant such developments. It has the potential to unleash new dynamics in the geo-politics of the region which in turn will reshape the priorities of India and Pakistan. But one thing is clear, the two countries will enter this new phase with their bitter historical baggage intact.