The agonising, bit-by-bit disintegration of their planned talks over the weekend has reduced India and Pakistan to planning low-level official exchanges and precluded the possibility of a broader engagement any time soon.
Despite a hardening of Islamabad’s stance that has raised more questions about the future of a bilateral peace process that has been stalled for more than six years, Pakistan has indicated it will go ahead with a planned meeting of the heads of border guarding forces on September 6.
But after talks between the national security advisers (NSAs) collapsed because the two sides were unable to agree on an agenda and Pakistan insisted on going ahead with a meeting with Kashmiri separatists, the leadership in Islamabad has laid down conditions for future high-level parleys.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has said any dialogue with India that does not include the Kashmir issue will be futile while NSA Sartaj Aziz, the de facto foreign minister, has said Pakistan will not take the initiative for a meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September. After the latest fiasco, it is difficult to see the Indian side reaching out unconditionally.
When Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Sharif met in the Russian city of Ufa on July 10, the joint statement issued after their talks clearly stated the NSAs would only “discuss all issues connected to terrorism”.
The strong criticism Sharif faced on his return home because the statement did not include the “K” word probably led to Pakistan’s subsequent gambit to expand the agenda for the meeting of the NSAs to “all outstanding issues”, including Kashmir, and to its invitation to Hurriyat leaders to meet Aziz.
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Baqir Sajjad, diplomatic correspondent for Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper, said both sides had dug themselves into a hole.
“India is focused on terrorism and Pakistan wants to talk about all issues that have bedevilled relations. They will have to work out a format for (future) talks,” he told HT from Islamabad.
Sajjad said the two sides will have to work to find “some sort of balance”. But that could be easier said than done.
Since the 2008 Mumbai attacks, India and Pakistan have had no substantial engagements. They have also struggled to agree on a format to take forward the stalled peace process, with Pakistan calling for the resumption of the erstwhile composite dialogue process while India has indicated that all talks should focus on terrorism and security-related concerns.
“India must remain engaged with the peace constituency in Pakistan while remaining cognisant of the deep state that has an interest in maintaining a certain amount of simmer,” said Commodore (retired) C Uday Bhaskar, director of the think tank Society for Policy Studies.
“Those who think India scored a point over the NSA-level talks should realise this will be a Pyrrhic victory in the long run. We should not close the windows so that there is an opportunity for Pakistan can come back on track.”
Some observers feel the atmosphere was further sullied by Aziz’s recent remarks about nuclear-armed Pakistan being capable of defending itself against “Modi’s India (that) acts as if they are a regional superpower”, but Bhaskar noted that such threats are part of the sabre-rattling to which Islamabad has traditionally resorted.
The BJP-led government in New Delhi will be under no pressure for a quick resumption of contacts with Islamabad. Building relations with Pakistan is not a priority for its core constituency and the government will be reluctant to make a fresh push after its attempt to reach out to Pakistan at Ufa ended in the NSA talks fiasco.
In Pakistan, Prime Minister Sharif and his government have little say in deciding foreign policy, which is directed by the generals in Rawalpindi, and any effort to normalise ties is unlikely.
It is now becoming increasingly obvious that India and Pakistan will have to go back to the drawing board to find ways to take the peace process forward. But terrorism will be central to this process – New Delhi may have to make concessions on its terrorism-first stance while Islamabad, which has taken a series of steps against domestic terrorist groups, will have to finally come good on its pledges to counter anti-India militants.
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