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More than a decade ago in 1997, when I.K. Gujral was prime minister and India and Pakistan had not even come out of the nuclear closet, the Indian foreign office hit upon a phrase which meant little to anyone else except itself. It was called the “composite dialogue," and in typical Brahmanical style, it spawned yet another hierarchy in the complex relationship where both sides have, perhaps deliberately, mistaken the wood for the trees.

Jyoti Malhotra

After much bilateral wrangling, this is what the “composite dialogue" turned out to mean: The foreign secretaries of the two countries would discuss the two most important issues of terrorism and Kashmir that bedevilled the relationship. Another six issues — variously identified as Siachen, Sir Creek, trade, people-to-people, culture and the Wular barrage — would be separately discussed by senior bureaucrats in the two governments.

Predictably, it took weeks and months for officials on both sides to set dates for each meeting. By the time they finished pushing papers, impatient generals decided to take matters in their own hands (at Kargil between May and July 1999)) and bloody-minded terrorists drove home the message, again and again, that they didn’t need visas to infiltrate across the Line of Control, or LoC, into Kashmir, or strike at will in the heart of the Capital, inside the Indian Parliament. But the pen-pushers kept at their jobs. Not for nothing are diplomats from the subcontinent considered to be among the best and brightest across the world. The world, in the meanwhile, changed. Russia was one of the poorest countries in 1997; today it is one of the strongest, ready to beat the Americans at their own game. China is a rapidly rising power, having overtaken the Europeans and the Russians to climb to No. 2. Nepal’s dreaded Maoist leader Prachanda has come out of the jungle and proclaimed that Nepal will be a democracy.

In India, the economy began to rock and Indian entrepreneurs began to take on the world. So what happened to the India-Pakistan relationship? Turns out that during his second visit in two years to Islamabad on Wednesday, foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee reviewed not only the “composite dialogue" so far (four rounds of which are thankfully over), but also looked at the contours of a fifth cycle. Indian foreign office sources, briefing some journalists on the eve of Mukherjee’s visit, are believed to have said that “there must be no romanticism" in dealing with Pakistan. And so, Mukherjee’s statement on arrival made clear that any forward movement was “predicated" on an end to terrorism.

Clearly, Mukherjee was referring to infiltration attempts across the LoC last week, which have shattered the ceasefire that has held since 2003. The Indian government is understandably furious. Perhaps, in an election year, it was thought better to play safe in all dealings with Islamabad.

The tragedy is, 11 years have passed, and there’s so little to show for it. Even the Congress party’s biggest confidence-building measure, the passenger bus across the LoC from Srinagar to Muzaffarabad, is a failure. None other than Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had opened the bus service in April 2005.

It was supposed to have been the big salve to the anguish of the divided Kashmiris, while other political and legislative measures were being worked upon for more permanent solutions. When Kashmiris were permitted to use travel permits instead of passports for the cross-LoC bus, it was considered a big victory over the foreign office and security bureaucracy (they had wanted passports to be used).

It now seems the Congress is presiding over the death of one of its best ideas. For the last few months, the bus is mostly empty, because the procedure to obtain a travel permit is so cumbersome. The bureaucracy has won this round, again. Certainly, it’s nobody’s view that nostalgia and romance replace the hard-headed business of diplomacy, but the truth also is that if New Delhi doesn’t put its creative bone to good use sometimes, it could end up with very little on its plate. For example, India’s refusal to give Pakistan the house Mohammed Ali Jinnah lived in, to serve as its consulate in Mumbai, is hurting nobody but India. Since Pakistan has linked the opening of an Indian consulate in Karachi with the opening of its own consulate in Mumbai, the lack of an Indian presence in Karachi is bound to have consequences for Delhi’s own diplomatic reach.

Similarly, throwing open the border at Wagah-Attari and allowing the aam admi, or common man, to rediscover common ties can only be apiece with India’s open, democratic tradition. Linking the lack of mobile phone connectivity across the frontiers, or a second trade route at Hussainiwala-Gandasinghwala in Punjab, with the end of terrorism from Pakistan, only hurts India’s presence in the neighbouring country. If India doesn’t show a little more imagination, the decades will roll by as easily as they have in the past.

When the Congress party led the United Progressive Alliance coalition to victory in 2004, it was in the area of foreign policy that the low-hanging fruit was most obvious: The nuclear deal with America, solving the border problem with China and moving forward with Pakistan.

But nearly five years have gone by, and none of these has happened. If the Congress is happy to abandon legacy and let the foreign office run the show, so be it. Okay, so foreign policy doesn’t translate into votes. That kind of cynicism is about as bad as the absence of romanticism.

Jyoti Malhotra is Mint’s diplomatic affairs editor and will write on intersection of foreign policy, trade and politics every week.

Comments are welcome at betweenthelines@livemint.com

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