India-Pakistan: Beyond blame games and media grand-standing

India-Pakistan: Beyond blame games and media grand-standing
Photo Credit: Ministry of external affairs
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For the third time during the last 18 months that it has been in power, the Modi government is seeking to begin a dialogue with Pakistan. A short statement issued after External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Islamabad earlier this week indicated that a “comprehensive bilateral dialogue” would begin shortly though no time frame has been specified. Ten subjects have been identified – peace and security and confidence-building measures; Jammu & Kashmir; Siachen; Sir Creek; Tulbul navigation project/Wular barrage; economic and commercial cooperation; counter-terrorism and narcotics control; people to people contacts; humanitarian issues; and religious tourism. While the National Security Advisers will deal with “counter-terrorism and narcotics control”, the remaining issues will be handled by the Foreign Secretaries.

This announcement was preceded by a 160 second pull-aside meeting on 30 November between Prime Ministers Modi and Nawaz Sharif in Paris, on the margins of the COP 21 meeting. Much was read into the body language of the two leaders. The surprise came a week later in the form of an unpublicised meeting between the two NSAs Ajit Doval and Lt Gen (retd) Nasir Khan Janjua in Bangkok on December 6. Accompanying the two NSAs were the foreign secretaries and a few senior officials. A brief five sentence statement issued in Bangkok stated that the meeting was held in a “candid, cordial and constructive atmosphere” pursuant to the meeting of the two prime ministers in Paris and was guided by the vision of two leaders for peace and stability. The constructive engagement process would be continued coyly hinting  that the External Affairs Minister would be travelling to Islamabad for the Heart of Asia conference on Afghanistan. The subjects discussed in Bangkok covered “peace and security, terrorism, Jammu and Kashmir etc”.

Desire for dialogue

Is there something new this time around? It certainly does not seem so. However, what it clearly indicates is Prime Minister Modi’s desire to have a dialogue with Pakistan, as part of a credible “neighbourhood first” foreign policy that he has talked about from the time that he came into office. His initiative in inviting the SAARC leaders for his oath taking ceremony last May highlighted this, as did his early visits to Bhutan and Nepal. With Pakistan, it was announced that the foreign secretaries would meet in August (2014). The talks were abruptly called off when the Pakistani High Commissioner went ahead with his meeting with the Hurriyat leaders, days before the foreign secretary level talks. Meetings with Hurriyat leaders were not a new development but India’s decision to call off the talks clearly marked a new red line. On both sides, media went into overdrive. On the Indian side, it was pointed out that the talks were bilateral and there was no room for the Hurriyat at the table while the Pakistani media blamed India for laying down arbitrary pre-conditions.

Months passed and the SAARC summit in Kathmandu last November failed to break the ice. At the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the BRICS summit meetings held in Ufa in July this year, there was a productive meeting between the two prime ministers which marked the second attempt at beginning the dialogue between the two countries. This time, the dialogue, scheduled for August this year, was to be at the level of the two NSAs, with the focus being “terrorism”. The Ufa joint statement was brutally over-analysed and over-interpreted by experts on both sides. The Indian experts were eager to point out that Jammu and Kashmir was not mentioned in the Joint Statement which marked a singular victory for India and for the first time the talks would deal exclusively with “terrorism”, the core concern for India. Though the Pakistani government came under criticism domestically for omitting the specific mention of Jammu and Kashmir, they were quick to point out that it was covered in “all other issues” and NSA Sartaj Aziz would take up this issue with his Indian counterpart. When it was announced that Aziz would also meet the Hurriyat leaders during his visit to Delhi, the Indian government issued an ultimatum and the visit was called off. The gladiators of the TV arenas in both countries claimed victory. The result was that the dossiers that both sides had prepared containing details of each others’ activities in promoting instability and insurgency in each other’s countries remained un-exchanged though India had suggested that this could be done in New York when both the NSAs were there in September.

The way ahead

However, it is clear that Modi was not happy with this turn of events. It is evident  that he wants a dialogue; twice, he had taken the initiative but each time, his efforts had been stymied by hyper-nationalist voices taking over the public discourse. The third time around, having learnt the lesson, he was determined to keep things under wraps. The Paris meeting was handled in a low key manner and there was no inkling that the NSAs were going to meet in Bangkok shortly thereafter. Further, both sides seem to have given up the idea of exchanging blame game dossiers though the meeting in Bangkok lasted for four hours. The Indian side conceded the point that all issues would be discussed and this includes Jammu and Kashmir, as the Bangkok statement makes clear. Holding the meeting in Bangkok bypassed the Hurriyat issue though it contradicted External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s categorical assertion in August that bilateral talks would only be held in Delhi and Islamabad,and not in a third country.

One significant change was the appointment of Lt Gen Nasir Khan Janjua as the new Pakistani NSA in October, following his retirement from the army. From all accounts, he enjoys Chief of Army Staff Gen Raheel Sharif’s trust. His predecessor Sartaj Aziz who held the responsibilities of being NSA and de-facto Foreign Minister was seen as Nawaz Sharif’s confidante. Modi is committed to visiting Pakistan next year for the SAARC summit. For this, a conducive atmosphere needs to be created. Growing incidents of cross border violations and firings across the Line of Control need to be brought down. The Doval – Janjua connection could be productive in this; the other important challenge will also be to manage expectations as the “comprehensive bilateral dialogue” moves forward.

How visiting Pakistani leaders and officials engage with the Hurriyat still remains to be seen for not all meetings can be held in third countries. But most important, both sides understand that engaging in a blame game or media grand-standing has to be avoided to sustain a dialogue.

Former diplomat Rakesh Sood was the Prime Minister’s special envoy for disarmament and non-proliferation till May 2014.