There is a sense of déjà vu about the manner in which the India-Pakistan talks unravelled the day after they were concluded. Tempting while it may be to claim that the outcome was only to be expected, actual evidence suggests that both sides have survived to resume discussions another day.
In the run-up to the talks, there was a build-up of hope with both sides showing some restraint in their public statements; and, then the actual talks went on for several hours, suggesting that the two countries were making a genuine effort to take the peace process forward. However, the joint press conference witnessed simmering tensions (nothing out of the ordinary), which then blew up unexpectedly the day after when Pakistan’s foreign minister sought to address his domestic constituency.
But this is where the script changed. India, despite this provocation and the rising tide of opinion within the country for a jingoistic rejoinder, took the high ground. The government did well in keeping focus on the key issue: permanent truce with Pakistan. Maybe India wanted it more, but the second flip-flop on Saturday by the Pakistan government seemed to suggest that it was also keen on a deal—though the contours of individual desire are sure to differ.
The best indication that all is not lost is the fact that both sides did not walk away and suspend further talks, as has been the case in the past. Here it would be prudent to note that the motivation, for once, to engage in peace parleys has not come at the behest of the US. Beset by its problems elsewhere in the world, including those with two of its key allies, Israel and Turkey, an unstable Iraq, setbacks in Afghanistan and a rapidly escalating crisis with Iran, the Americans, following the leadership change in the White House, are no longer able to devote as much attention to South Asia as they once did.
This sense of urgency has been bolstered by the fact that India has finally begun to get its act right in South Asia. It may be a fallback to the so-called Gujral doctrine—which ruled out reciprocity of action with any other country, excepting Pakistan, in South Asia. Not surprising, therefore, that Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have been quick to respond to an Indian initiative.
Finally, there is a need to temper expectations from the outcome of the talks. For two countries that were at loggerheads till as much as a few months ago, to come to the negotiating table without the usual intermediary is commendable. Still, to expect them to brush over the trust deficit of the last six decades is simply unrealistic.
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