Former foreign secretary Nirupama Rao, tasked with restarting dialogue with Pakistan, often sought solace in the words of Shakespeare. In salubrious Thimphu in February 2011, she recited from King Lear: Ripeness is all. In other words, there is no choice in life but to stay the course.
Three years after ties between the nuclear neighbours had been wrecked by the Mumbai terror attack of 2008, and six months after a disastrous meeting of their foreign ministers in Islamabad, Rao had been sent to the Bhutanese capital to engage her counterpart Salman Bashir. But even a UPA-II government led by peacenik PM Manmohan Singh was unable to bridge the post-Mumbai trust deficit.
Even so, the sense of wanting to engage was, and is, a powerful one. Perhaps the most apt reason was cited in his inimitable style by former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee: “We cannot change our neighbours.”
After a series of flip-flops, the Narendra Modi government seems to have realised that it needs a coherent and realistic Pakistan policy, and that no amount of rhetoric and foreign ministry spin can obviate the importance of engagement with Pakistan.
The national security advisers of two countries struck a realistic note in Bangkok on Sunday. That needs to be preserved and pursued further. Between the meetings between PM Modi and his Pakistan counterpart Nawaz Sharif in Ufa in July and a brief but more useful huddle in Paris on November 30, both sides have engaged in the traditional neighbour bashing, often in emotive television shows calculated to rack up the TRPs.
There is no point in evoking the spirit of Ufa -- or now onwards, Bangkok -- if the neighbours cannot accept the fundamental issues that made the relationship a one-step-forward-two-step backward affair for many years now. The rhetoric of India that Ufa statement had mandated the national security advisers only to discuss terrorism was bound to fail. And it did in Bangkok where the top officials were engaged in a more meaningful dialogue because they discussed it all: Jammu & Kashmir, terrorism, Line of Control, peace and security.
Rhetoric is inescapable in a vociferous democracy like India’s. But that does little good in managing let alone improving the complex India-Pakistan relationship. Now that Modi has taken the plunge, the momentum should be retained.
The best way to ensure that is break away from the composite dialogue paradigm under which both sides discussed eight issues of mutual importance. It was a long process and often yielded very little results, because often what one ministry had said was vetoed or watered down by the other-- in both countries. And the problem was more serious in Pakistan because its Army has been driving the country’s India policy.
Instead the government should now let the three officials who represented India at Bangkok -- NSA Ajit Doval, foreign secretary S Jaishankar and PM’s special envoy on counter terrorism Asif Ibrahim -- continue the engagement with their counterparts. They enjoy Modi’s trust and are empowered to deal with all issues between them. Their efforts could be reviewed by the two prime ministers at regular intervals.
This arrangement is likely to work more than getting a host of secretaries (and the surveyor generals for Sir Creek ) to discuss issues ranging from culture to commerce. The new Pakistan NSA, Nasir Janjua, can help keep matters moving. Janjua’s background as an army commander and a confidant of army chief Raheel Sharif has already helped the two sides engage meaningfully as he had the approval of the Pakistan establishment.
The reality of Pakistan’s geography is its biggest advantage. Accept it or not, no fight against terror will be envisaged by any Western country without assigning a role to Pakistan; its importance is magnified by the fact that a number of terror outfits roam free in its territory. This doesn’t mean that we should abandon our quest for justice for the 26/11 Mumbai, or that we should reduce the pressure on our neighbour. But the reality of Pakistan makes it amply clear that engagement has no substitute. Those who are fond of Shakespeare might remember this quote too: “The better part of valour is discretion.” And not disengagement.