As provocative, bumptious and aggressive as Shah Mehmood Qureshi can be — Pakistan's foreign minister was not quite the loose thread that pulled at the fabric of the Islamabad talks and left both countries embarrassingly exposed and without any fig leaves to hide modestly behind. A dead-end was always the destination for these talks if you look carefully at how the journey has been mapped and at the fact that like victims of an obsessive compulsive disorder, India and Pakistan seem destined to repeat the same fatal mistakes over and over again.
The truth is that as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh steers his brave vision for peace through a minefield of obstacles — terror threats, inflammable public opinion, a sceptical party cadre and the shadow of 26/11 — his government seems to be crafting its Pakistan policy on the go. Yes, a certain level of inventiveness and imaginative flexibility may be an essential skill for a dynamic as complicated as the one between India and Pakistan. But the present template for talks is weighed down by far too many contradictions. It is destined to collapse under the weight of its own paradox. Add to that certain fatal flaws, stir up the pot and you have a recipe for a very stale dish.
Take the joint press conference between the two foreign ministers. Of course, it was preposterous and offensive for Qureshi to draw any sort of equivalence between the hate-mongering Hafiz Saeed and one of India's top-ranking bureaucrats. But, while the entire debate got framed in terms of national pride and whether SM Krishna should have stepped in more forcefully, what about the more fundamental question: why was there a joint press conference at all?
One would think history had provided enough lessons to both countries for them to be more educated about the perils of such an event; especially when there is nothing significant to say. Think Agra; think Sharm-el-Sheikh — and yet, the two countries still get bizarrely fixated with that subcontinental peculiarity — the 'joint statement'. Then they spend hours arguing about how to present a united front, either in appearance or text, which, of course, swiftly collapses under the scrutiny of their individual domestic constituencies. Diplomats on both sides never tire of lecturing to the media on how the India-Pakistan dialogue is a "process, not an event". Why, then, do they feel the need to create a sordid drama every time by pushing the joint presser or joint statement as a barometer of progress? It's almost a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom.
But there is also a deeper contradiction in our approach to the dialogue with Islamabad. There are two dimensions to the home secretary's comments on the David Headley interrogation report: when he chose to speak and what he said. That the timing was problematic has now been acknowledged at the highest levels of government. But it's also stripped away the semblance of a united, cohesive response to Pakistan. Delhi's power corridors are echoing with conspiratorial whispers and theories.
Was the foreign ministry even shown the details of Headley's confessions by the home ministry? Why did Krishna first defend the home secretary and then go on record to criticise him five days later for speaking out of turn? Where does the PM's office stand in the imbroglio? It may be great gossip in power circles, but in real terms it's a high-risk turf war that underlines the confusion over who is driving our Pakistan policy.
But let's look for a moment at what the home secretary said, instead of why he said it. His comments on the ISI's involvement in the Mumbai attacks were underscored by the National Security Adviser later in the week, albeit in more nuanced and general terms. But once India raises questions about the role of Pakistan's "official establishment" in terrorism, what does that do to the present template of the dialogue? India's stated position is that while all issues, including Kashmir and Balochistan are on the table, justice for 26/11 is a priority. Unofficial briefings after one round of talks in Delhi even quantified that 80 per cent of the talks were about terrorism.
If that's the case, is there any point talking to Shah Mehmood Qureshi? Do we really believe he is empowered to take action against sections of his country's military or intelligence apparatus? If Pakistan's army chief — who has just driven home his influential indispensability with a three-year extension — can be part of the strategic dialogue with Washington, what stops us from talking directly to the people who matter? In the past, Pakistan's ISI chief Lt. General Shuja Pasha met with the three Indian defence attaches at the high commission in Islamabad and is believed to have suggested as much.
Speaking from a position of utilitarianism, is it really India's job to strengthen the civilian government in Pakistan, as is often argued? Or is it in our interest to talk to those in Pakistan who really frame and control India policy? After all, if we could be so dazzled by General Pervez Musharraf even in the aftermath of Kargil, why can't we build new channels of contact with the military in Pakistan. To me it seems a useless sort of political correctness to keep engaging with everyone in Islamabad but those who count.
Islamabad too needs to review its fixation with resuming the composite dialogue. There is an extraordinary expenditure of energy over the nomenclature of talks. The fact is that talks between India and Pakistan no longer stumble and fall over eight different issues. Even Kashmir was close to an acceptable, plausible resolution formula had the Mumbai attacks not taken place. The composite dialogue may well be beside the point, if not nearing redundancy. India and Pakistan need someone to break the pattern, not repeat it ad infinitum. To start with, eliminate the joint press conference. That may mean, round one — to peace.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV. The views expressed by the author are personal.