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February 18, 2011

Talk, and just talk


February 18, 2011

Blessed is the man who expects nothing for he shall never be disappointed. That’s the feeling virtually all have about the forthcoming India-Pakistan talks. At best we will get a bit of friendliness when what is needed is friendship. Hardly anyone, therefore, whether in government or the public at large, expects anything to come out of these talks. They are likely to be thoroughly inconclusive and demoralising, much like the previous rounds and diplomatic interactions. They will consist of all the contradictions and inconsistencies that have become an integral part of the so called India-Pakistan ‘dialogue’ – truly the dialogue of the deaf.
“Meetings are only really necessary”, said an ex ambassador, “when you don’t want to do anything”. And as it happens there is nothing of substance that either wants from the other and which either is remotely in a position to concede or, frankly, in the mood to do so. India perhaps needs the talks a mite more than Pakistan. It helps her perennial quest for enhanced stature at a time when it is seeking a permanent membership of the Security Council and after the recent uprising in Kashmir sullied her image. It also helps India manifest a keenness for a peaceful solution even as it visits further brutalities on the hapless Kashmiris. Of course, it fools no one and least of all the Kashmiris but then India is a slave to habit. On the other hand, our image is beyond repair and our preferences and dislikes set in stone, so whether or not talks are held is really of no import.
Meanwhile, India’s and Pakistan’s problems continue to grow, as new threats to their future emerge, such as the water issue which turns graver with every passing year as global climatic change takes hold, threatening to become in due course another source of hostility. How can they handle the impact of climate change on their river flows and food security when they have failed to tackle issues that have been rotting in their agenda

for decades, even such secondary issues as Sir Creek and Siachin?
Even terrorism, which should have brought India and Pakistan closer, has in fact set them further apart because of the Mumbai episode. Surely, India must know that Pakistan is facing a grim situation with terrorism which is taking place in a complicated internal context. Pakistan could be far more effective in tackling this menace internally if its relations with India were better and there was no pressure of a reassuring kind on its eastern border. By seeking satisfaction on Mumbai and showing no flexibility on more fundamental issues, like Kashmir, India is adding to Pakistan’s problems and threat perceptions. But then who would expect India to behave differently?
Such a stance is a non starter for the talks which have become a joke. Even the outside world that may not be intimately familiar with the India-Pakistan relationship has probably grown cynical about such talks. Better to talk than not to talk is about the only rationale that’s left. Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s claim that among his ‘achievements’ as foreign minister was the resumption of the India-Pakistan dialogue without offering a solitary example of what they had achieved in the three years that he was in office only reinforced this impression.
What further dashes hopes of any meaningful outcome is that the talks are taking place at a time when Manmohan Singh’s coalition is wobbly, admittedly not as much as that of Zardari’s, but its pretty brittle nonetheless. Neither can afford to add to their list of woes by taking initiatives that are controversial lest their opponents have yet another issue with which to berate them. Besides, if one of the interlocutors, the former foreign minister, may have had the clout to be slightly more forthcoming when reacting to Indian proposals his successor has none. For all practical purposes she is an empty suit. Hopefully, Pakistan will have a full fledged foreign minister soon. Only this time he or she should be selected for their expertise and not sartorial flare. For that matter India too needs a heavyweight foreign minister. Mr Krishna gives the impression of being totally at sea in his job, an impression that was confirmed the other day by his faux pas at the UN. True anyone can make a mistake but his was a howler; and the length of time it took him to correct it was well past that half way moment when mistakes can be recalled without damaging the reputation.
What was noticeable from the aftermath of the foreign secretary level talks in Thimpu was the Indian desire to discuss the situation in Afghanistan with Pakistan, as if India now has as much of an abiding interest in Afghanistan as Pakistan. If India believes that it can elbow itself on to a chair at the Afghan peace table it has another thing coming. India’s presence in Afghanistan is already the cause for much alarm in Pakistan and it will continue to be hotly contested.
What is worrying about Afghanistan is not the presence of Indian sleuths at the Indian Consulates in Kandahar, but the prospect of a permanent US military presence in Afghanistan after the pull out in 2014 that would strengthen India’s role in Afghanistan in light of the emerging US-India strategic partnership to counter Chinese influence continentally. Which is why the Indians welcome continued US military presence and why we should be concerned about it. But that does not appear to be the case. Naively, we continue to support a continued US military presence post 2014 for selfish and short-sighted reasons, and mostly to gain leverage with Washington at the present juncture when, in fact, a continued and provocative US military presence will make it well nigh impossible to convince most Taliban insurgents to talk peace and we will see continued conflict on our borders.
No amount of dialogue, composite or singular, between India and Pakistan will make a difference to their adversarial relationship until India ceases to behave like a regional hegemon and shows respect for the legitimate security interests and concerns of its neighbours. By impinging on Pakistan’s legitimate interests along its western borders India will only be adding to its problems with Pakistan.

The writer is a former ambassador.
Email: [email protected]

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