Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

The same old script of India-Pakistan ties

Even if the ties seem to be on an upswing, the process can derail anytime

As a young British diplomat, Sir Harold George Nicolson participated in the Paris Peace Conference (1919) held in the aftermath of the World War I. Giving an account of the conference in his book Peacemaking 1919, Nicolson writes: “I learnt from this erratic but brilliant statesman [David Lloyd George] that apparent opportunism is not always irreconcilable with vision… that volatility of method is not always indicative of volatility of intentions." Lloyd George served as the prime minister of the UK between 1916 and 1922. The current National Democratic Alliance government would require a diplomat-wordsmith like Nicolson to justify the spate of flip-flops on Pakistan.

To be fair, confusion over the Pakistan policy has not been a monopoly of the current government. All the previous governments in recent memory have been equally, if not more, clueless in dealing with India’s most difficult neighbour. The dialogue held between Ajit Doval and Lt General (retd) Naseer Janjua—the national security advisers (NSA) of India and Pakistan respectively—accompanied by the foreign secretaries on 6 December in Bangkok has capped the latest round of the same old game involving recurrent phases of engagement and disengagement.

The NSA-level dialogue was preceded by a “pull aside" meeting between prime ministers Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif on the sidelines of the Paris climate change summit. Sushma Swaraj, the minister of external affairs, is on a trip to Islamabad to attend the Heart of Asia conference, which focuses on regional cooperation with a strong emphasis on stability in Afghanistan. The Bangkok talks were intended to resume the bilateral engagement in order to pave the way for Modi’s participation in the 19th Saarc (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) summit scheduled to be held in Islamabad in 2016.

The constraints that led to the cancellation of NSA-level dialogue in August were overcome by a mix of improvisations and compromises. The August dialogue was called off because Pakistan was not ready to honour India’s twin conditions of a) no meddling by the Hurriyat, a Kashmir-based organization with a separatist agenda, and b) restriction of the NSA-level talks to terrorism alone (leaving out Kashmir). The former was made clear to Pakistan through the cancellation of foreign secretary talks in August 2014 following the meeting between Hurriyat leaders and Abdul Basit, Pakistan’s high commissioner to India. The latter was enshrined in the joint statement released after the two prime ministers met in Ufa, Russia, on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit held in July this year. There was also a third issue. The Pakistan Army was not confident about pitting Sartaj Aziz, the former NSA of Pakistan who is an economist by training, to face Doval, a career intelligence officer with a sterling reputation.

The venue of Bangkok helped Pakistan avoid the political compulsions of meeting the Hurriyat leaders. India yielded—and this simply cannot be stated differently—on Kashmir. New Delhi realized—after the experience of Ufa—that avoiding Kashmir in any joint statement is politically untenable for the Pakistani establishment. The third issue was resolved by replacing Aziz with Janjua as the NSA.

It is being claimed by many that the ‘Bangkok process’ was decided in the brief meeting held between Modi and Sharif in Paris. This is highly unlikely because the only Sharif who takes these decisions in Pakistan is Raheel Sharif, the Chief of Army Staff. Moreover, the resumption of NSA-level dialogue had been on the cards since the appointment of Janjua—believed to be close to Raheel Sharif.

With the initial hurdles now overcome, it will not be surprising to see the resumption of the composite dialogue process—the template for full-fledged bilateral talks—in due course of time. Aziz, who retains his role as foreign affairs adviser to prime minister Sharif, has said that he will explore such possibilities in his meeting with Swaraj on her Islamabad trip.

Even though things may seem to be on an upswing, the process can derail anytime. It is unrealistic to expect Pakistan to withdraw support to anti-India terrorists in the near future or to expedite the 26/11 trials. The lack of clarity over the objectives on the Indian side does not help either. The government should achieve some results quickly or else hire a Nicolson to offer better explanations than the verbal jugglery on display by the current lot of spokespersons.

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