The writer is a former envoy to the US and the UK, and a former editor of The News.
After months in diplomatic limbo talks between Pakistan and India are set to resume next month in a fresh bid to put the peace process back on the rails.
The foreign secretaries of the two countries will meet on the sidelines of a standing committee meeting of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) due in Thimpu on 6-7 February. This is expected to pave the way for a meeting between the foreign ministers for which S M Krishna recently renewed his invitation to Shah Mahmood Qureshi to visit Delhi in the first quarter of 2011.
The diplomatic encounters ahead offer an opportunity to resuscitate the broad based peace process that was derailed after the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai. Since then formal talks between the two countries have been hobbled by contending visions of a future dialogue, reflecting the differing priorities of the two sides – and mutual mistrust.
Last year’s prolonged diplomatic minuet resulted in a familiar stalemate when officials of the two countries disagreed on the modalities and agenda to define the terms of their re-engagement. Delhi insisted that Islamabad take prior action against the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks before the renewal of formal talks. Pakistan called for a return to the eight-issue composite dialogue of 2004-08. Delhi refused to revive this format, seeking instead to focus on the terrorism issue and argue that confidence building should precede any substantive discussions.
Encouraged by the international community, the two countries however kept talking and this helped to narrow the chasm over how to transition to full-fledged talks. In September 2010 officials from the two countries agreed to what was called on outcome document, that was to be announced after a meeting between the foreign ministers on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.
The meeting fell through when Delhi insisted that Pakistan make no reference to Kashmir during the General Assembly session – a demand that was impossible to accept not least because of intensified protests in Indian-held Kashmir against Delhi’s rule. Last summer alone over a hundred civilians were killed in the Valley by security forces.
The outcome document set out a road map of meetings on all the issues that had previously figured in the composite dialogue. If, and when, implemented this will effectively reinstall the comprehensive peace process that Islamabad has been seeking in the past two years.
The question now is whether next month’s meeting in Bhutan between Salman Bashir and his Indian counterpart Nirupama Rao will reaffirm the September 2010 understanding on this document and set the stage for its announcement following the foreign ministers’ meeting in Delhi.
Also in question is whether the two officials will be able to revive the July 2010 agreement on a set of confidence building measures that were to be unveiled after the Islamabad meeting of the foreign ministers. When the July talks collapsed amid mutual recriminations, so did the planned announcement of the CBMs. Although modest in nature – covering humanitarian issues and reviving the working group on cross-Line of Control travel and trade – they are not insignificant and might help to ease the fraught climate that casts such a long shadow on bilateral relations.
An immediate irritant that needs to be removed to improve the atmosphere for the Thimpu talks relates to the position India has taken at the World Trade Organisation to effectively block a time-bound trade concession deal for Pakistan approved in September 2010 by the European Union. The deal under the Generalized System of Preferences needs a country-specific WTO ‘waiver’ to be operational. In November, India’s envoy to the Council on Trade in Goods, which works by consensus, raised multiple objections and stalled the process.
With another meeting of the council due on 31 January, Islamabad should ask Delhi to drop its opposition and create a propitious climate for the talks ahead. Reciprocity is in any case warranted by Pakistan’s gesture to allow onion exports to India at Delhi’s urgent request.
Delhi’s willingness to move towards a comprehensive dialogue process may be the result of several factors including sustained international pressure and quiet urgings by President Barack Obama during his November 2010 visit to India.
Four other factors may also have urged a change in Delhi’s stance. One, India having just started its term as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council may see restarting talks with Pakistan as a way to enhance its credentials to play a larger role on the international stage. This is especially so as Delhi regards its current Security Council membership as a stepping stone to galvanize more support and legitimacy for its bid for permanent membership.
Two, Delhi’s failure to manage the situation in Kashmir may also be urging it to revive peace talks with Pakistan as a means to pacify Kashmiri sentiments as well as deflect the international focus and urgings to address the causes of the unrest in the Valley.
Three, Delhi may have concluded that its conditions-based approach to broader talks had run out of steam and begun to yield diminishing returns. Meanwhile the recent disclosures about the 2007 terrorist attack on the Samjhota Express – in which 42 Pakistanis were killed in a bombing by Hindu extremists – have put Delhi on the defensive. From this perspective, resumption of dialogue with Pakistan also helps Delhi defuse this messy situation.
And four, the approaching Afghan endgame is an important factor in India’s calculus to talk to Islamabad out of the concern not to be marginalised from a diplomatic process that may eventually give Pakistan a key role in Afghan-led and US-backed reconciliation efforts with the Taliban. Dialogue also serves as a means to soften Islamabad’s stance on an Indian role in post-war Afghanistan.
Whatever the mix of motives behind the shift in Delhi’s approach, the diplomatic interaction ahead will offer Islamabad the opportunity to test and evaluate whether this shift is tactical or represents a change of heart to make negotiations meaningful.
Islamabad also gains from renewed engagement. Attaining a modicum of stability in bilateral ties can enable Pakistan to focus on pressing internal challenges without being distracted by frequent flare-up in tensions with India. Engagement can also help address immediate irritants and offers an avenue for conversations on Afghanistan, which the two countries, distrustful of the other’s strategic intentions, have never had.
Afghanistan, Pakistan’s concerns over India’s role in fomenting destabilisation in Balochistan and the issue of water rights have poisoned relations in recent years and added new layers of mutual suspicion, all of which need to be addressed.
The resurrection of a comprehensive peace process can be a vehicle to manage differences even as efforts are launched to resolve them and prevent tensions from spinning out of control. If ‘management’ of relations is a near term goal, conflict resolution will have to be the centrepiece of a purposeful, result-oriented dialogue.
This means a determined effort to achieve a strategic equilibrium by adopting a problem-solving approach to the disputes that divide the two countries and lie at the heart of longstanding tensions while identifying areas of mutual benefit where movement can be made.
Unless the dialogue is also able to address Kashmir, relations between the nuclear neighbours will remain vulnerable to a relapse, even breakdown. Those who argue that the issue be put aside, overlook the fact that when adopted in the past this approach produced little and did not make the issue go away. Nor will the effort to miscast the issue in terms of terrorism extinguish the Kashmiri yearning for freedom. This is evident from the continuing peaceful protests there.
The immediate challenge for Pakistani and Indian officials is to find a mutually agreed road map for re-engagement that accommodates both countries’ concerns and priorities but avoids fashioning a process at the expense of substance. It is the substance of engagement that will determine whether the latest diplomatic efforts herald a new beginning or another false start.