On 18 August, Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) spokesperson announced that the Foreign Secretary-level talks between India and Pakistan scheduled for 25 August had been cancelled. This followed some dramatic developments earlier in the day centred around India’s Foreign Secretary, Sujatha Singh, calling the Pakistan High Commissioner, Abdul Basit, and advising him that the Foreign Secretary-level talks will be cancelled if he went ahead with his meeting with the Hurriyat leaders. Eventually, Basit settled for talking to them instead. The decision to call off the talks was reportedly taken at the level of the Prime Minister himself.
In informal briefings, MEA officials conveyed that Nawaz Sharif, the Pakistan Prime Minister, had accepted New Delhi’s advice that he should not meet the Hurriyat people during his May visit to New Delhi for the new Indian Prime Minister’s swearing-in. The explanation, given in off-the-record briefing, was that the Pakistan High Commissioner should not have transgressed the ‘red line’ which his Prime Minister himself had respected despite the near certainty of criticism back home– as it did, indeed, happen. There were also reports that the stand-off was, already,building up and the Pakistan High Commissioner was rather dismissive of the “hype” over the issue. He had, in fact, met the Hurriyat people even before he had presented his credentials to the President of India.
The government’s decision to cancel the talks, which were announced following the Prime Minister-level talks in May 2014, to prepare the agenda for their first substantive meeting on the sidelines of the UN GeneralAssembly in New York in September, has generated heated discussions in India as well as in Pakistan. Some analysts and political parties have considered cancellation as a knee-jerk reaction missing out on the promise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s unprecedented initiative earlier in May.In Pakistan, it has been seen as revelation of Prime Minister Modi’s hardline thinking, a la RSS, concerning a Pakistani practice accepted by the Congress and the BJP during the Prime Ministership of Atal Behari Vajpayee, who is, indeed, being projected by the new BJP leaders as a model worth emulation. Undoubtedly, the new Indian Prime Minister’s foreign policy moves, especially in critical areas of national and regional security, are being watched very closely not only in South Asia but much beyond, including China and the major powers such as the US and Europe.The issue in their minds is as to how this move squares with the initiative to invite leaders from SAARC countries and Mauritius earlier. The US State Department has described the Indian decision as “unfortunate” – the appellation used by the Pakistan foreign office as well.The Western European foreign offices would be thinking along similar lines.
There is no doubt that the Pakistan High Commissioner’s action was provocative, possibly reflecting the Pakistan Prime Minister’s weakened position as evident in the siege of Islamabad by Imran Khan and Tahir-ul-Qadri where the Army sees an opportunity to clip his wings and the– otherwise meddlesome – Supreme Court remains neutral. The High Commissioner lives here, remains in contact with the Hurriyat constantly, the Foreign Secretary-level talks were only for agenda-preparation rather than the part of a structured bilateral dialogue process and the Hurriyat were not meeting any visiting Pakistan delegation. His messaging was political – a changed Pakistan government stance on staging such events after the Prime Minister's visit. It needs bearing in mind that this event was preceded – and, accompanied - by heavy firing from the Pakistan side, including from across the international border.Very clearly, the spoilers do not want any dialogue process to proceed and would lose no opportunity to “test” the Indian will for stabilising India-Pakistan relations. Pursuing a mix of agendas, the hardliners – in the military, the intelligence and the Jihadi groups – are conscious that any stabilisation in the relationship would lead to greater pressure on them in some form or the other.
So, the new approach of the Modi government towards Pakistan is on test presently and is under watch in the region and outside. The border tension has clearly increased causing hardship to the peoplein localities nearby; so also, has there been an increase in terrorist encounters within Jammu and Kashmir. Although it is unlikely that armies would come face-to-face in a massive mobilisation, the border volatility’s impact on broader bilateral relationship also has implications for regional stability. Moreover, the expectation of any forward movement in the SAARC forum, the essential premise of the Prime Minister invite, will be undermined to which there will be disappointment amongst the other SAARC leaders as well.
There is also a stronger internal J&K dimension in regard to the Government’s new ‘red line’ in respect of the Hurriyat in that the BJP leadership senses an opportunity to win the Assembly elections in the state due in a few months. To that extent, the new Government is readying itself to directly confront the Hurriyat in state politics instead of ignoring it or trying to co-opt it as was the case in earlier Government attempts to find a local political settlement.The possible resultant tensions may have implications regarding extremist activity in the state.
The critical conundrum in India’s relationship with Pakistan is that of a massive terrorist strike like Mumbai.It can be reasonably assumed that some minds in Pakistan remain active. And, Indian dilemma inheres in the nature of the response: massive military mobilisation after the Parliament attack and the diplomatic activism in lieu of military response after Mumbai represent the two extremes in choices before the leadership. Moreover, the organisationalaspect of such terrorist attacks brings out the fuzzy command-and-control issues; Hadley told the NIA interrogators that the then DG, ISI, Lt. General Shuja Pasha, visited Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi,the key accused on trial in Pakistan in the Mumbai case, in his prison celljust to understand as to what had happened. And, Pakistan’s introduction of theatre nuclear weapons, with their own command-and-control issues, is aimed at deterring any possible Indian military response to the Mumbai-type terrorist strike in India. This critical security challenge is compounded by growing instability in Pakistan, rise of terrorist groups there in the face of weakening coping capacity of the security and armed forces anda looming possibility of state collapse in Afghanistan. Yet, another aspect of the growing Jihadist threat, already serious, is the advent of another terrorist group, ISIS, with the international links, in Syria and Iraq.
Tacticaldecisions regarding the timing and the approach to the substance of discussions apart, what has been the place of the India-Pakistan dialogue in our bilateral relations, such as they are? The various channels, be they the hotlines between the military and Coast Guard or the back-channel – have introduced a modicum of communication between the two adversarial countries between whom there are extensive people-to-people, cultural, media, civil society and parliamentary contacts and not inconsiderable trade. The back-channel diplomacy has also produced a possible outline for the resolution of the J &K issue. These exchanges, which have been and can be further expanded, help in preventing the consolidation of the Pakistan opinion-making circles on an anti-India platform. They also serve the purpose of feeling the pulse of a country which is volatile, has degrading state institutions and has an establishment with an India focus.
One needs to be realistic enough to note that a fragmented polity is in no position to deliver consistently on its agreements – as has already been the experience on several commitments from the Pakistan side. At the very least, these agreements create an opportunity to prevent a large neighbouring country, with a huge population and armed with nuclear weapons, into a hostile lock-down.Moreover, the process of a collapsing neighbouring state system can be better coped with, from India’s own point of view, through engagement instead of non-engagement.
Since any initiative for dialogue generates violent reaction, one way to handle this aspect is to lower the public profile of such engagements with the exception of the leadership-level dialogue. For example, Foreign Secretary-level talks can be announced nearer the date; the staff in the diplomatic missions can be strengthened to enable continuous dialogue between technical experts on issues of agreed interest. In this manner, the broad outlines of agreements can be worked out which can be formalised once the political opportunity presents itself for the leaders of both countries. Yet another way to maintain frequent dialogue among the leaders of the two countries is to activate the SAARC platform where the practice of informal exchanges can be embedded. Prime Minister Modi’s invite for the SAARC leaders is one such initiative which can be replicated by other countries on suitable occasions.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.