Act 1 of the India-Pakistan talks saga on Saturday revolved around NSA Sartaj Aziz's press conference in Islamabad. Coming on the heels of the public spats between the two country on Friday, and the revelations in Hindustan Times about the presence of Dawood Ibrahim in Pakistan, the presser assumed significance.
Here are five big takeaways from his event:
1. Pakistan will not call off the talks. Islamabad does not want to be seen as the spoiler, especially when over the past year, it has gained diplomatic points in western capitals by pointing out that India cancelled the Foreign Secretary level talks last year. Indeed, Aziz began his interaction referring to the events from last year, said it would be regretful if india cancelled for the second time, and said he would be happy to continue with the dialogue - as long as it was unconditional.
This is tricky diplomatic terrain, for India has made it clear that meeting Hurriyat was not acceptable. In one sense, this is a firm condition. But Pakistan has skirted around it by reiterating that they have been meeting Hurriyat for 20 years and India had no business to determine the high commissioner's guest list. It has thrown the ball back in Indian court. It clearly wants Delhi to spell out in even clearer terms that Pakistan's NSA 'will not be allowed' to meet Hurriyat or vice versa and cancel the talks rather than leave it at the level of advice. This would then give Islamabad ammunition.
But it still does not answer what happens when India blocks Hurriyat from meeting the NSA by detaining them, like it has done in the case of Shabir Shah. While calling it a violation of fundamental rights, Aziz was careful about not committing to any line of action.
2. Aziz made it clear that the reference to all outstanding issues at Ufa included the "K word". Recall that there was surprise that Pakistan had agree to a joint statement in Ufa which did not mention Kashmir. This had drawn domestic backlash, and reports suggested that the military-ISI was not pleased. Aziz spoke soon after Ufa to clarify Kashmir was on the agenda; India kept quiet because it did not want to rock the boat and understood the the civilian government's domestic constraints in Islamabad.
But now that the Hurriyat issue and the agenda for talks - India wants to discuss only terrorism - are matters of such intense public acrimony, Pakistan clearly saw it necessary to repeat - and repeat again - that Kashmir was on the table and no forward movement was possible without that. Aziz made it clear that India cannot pretend the issue does not exist and have normalisation on its terms.
3. Responding to the Indian statement which hinted at a force which wanted to derail the process, Aziz was blunt to rebut the perception that Islamabad (the civilian government) and Rawalpindi (the military) were not on the same page on Kashmir. He called the MEA's statement hilarious and said that Pakistan's political leadership and the nation was firmly with Kashmir and had thrown its political, moral, diplomatic weight behind the issue. The importance here was not his reference to Kashmir, but his effort to put to rest the theories about the gulf within Pakistan.
4. To possibly blunt the impact of the Dawood revelations, Aziz showed 3 dossiers that Pakistan had prepared on R&AW activities - and even said that if he was not able to give it to AK Doval in New Delhi, he hoped to do so next month in New York, besides also handing it over to the UN Secretary General.
The competition and tit for tat means that even if the NSA dialogue happens, both sides now have little space to go beyond their stated positions. They will blame each other and produce 'evidence', which will lead to denials and counter allegations.
5. Pakistan quite strongly flagged the issue of violations on the Line of Control. Aziz pointed out there have been over 70 incidents in the past month itself. He said that the idea behind the Ufa statement and scheduled talks were to revive mechanisms that would restore calm on the LOC. And if a breakdown of talks increased tensions, that would be undesirable. A Pakistani source had told HT last week that they don't necessarily want to only blame India - it was a fragile border, small issues could escalate and the need was to ensure trust. Aziz's statement that even if the NSA talks did not happen, talks between DGMOs and BSF and Rangers should continue is significant.
Read:India, Pak lacks clarity on taking peace process forward