Diplomacy is all about nuance and the art of the possible. The handling of a planned meeting of the National Security Advisors by India and Pakistan has been anything but.
This is not the first time a crucial meeting between the two sides has hung precariously in the balance, nor will it be the last. Thus we had the drama of India and Pakistan trading charges through the media throughout Friday, leaving people with the same old question: Will they or won’t they meet?
And then there was the issue of what exactly would be discussed. When Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif met in the Russian city of Ufa on July 10, the joint statement issued after their talks clearly stated the NSAs would meet only “to discuss all issues connected to terrorism”.
Pakistan’s subsequent gambit to expand the agenda to include all outstanding issues, including Kashmir, and its invitation to Hurriyat leaders to meet NSA Sartaj Aziz even before the formal diplomatic engagement on Monday, especially when the Narendra Modi government has indicated it is opposed to such meetings, produced results that were along expected lines.
Since Modi came to power last year, his national security and foreign policy team has made it very clear that terrorism and talks cannot go together. It also did away with the long-standing practice of every visiting Pakistani leader being allowed to hold consultations with the All Parties Hurriyat Conference.
But Sharif has been hamstrung because foreign policy is largely dictated by the other Sharif – Gen Raheel Sharif – and the generals in the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi. Gen Sharif spelt out his priorities some months ago when he declared Kashmir the “unfinished agenda of Partition”.
“Pakistan and its deep state have an interest in maintaining a certain amount of simmer. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s desire for good relations has been blunted – these are realities that can’t be ignored,” said Commodore (retired) C Uday Bhaskar, director of the think tank Society for Policy Studies.
Baqir Sajjad, the diplomatic correspondent for Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper, said there were “serious misunderstandings” between the two countries about what should be on the table. “India is focussed on terrorism and Pakistan wants to talk about all issues that have bedevilled relations. They will have to work out a format for talks,” he told Hindustan Times from Islamabad.
For the Pakistani side, any failure to include Kashmir in the formal agenda for talks will make it difficult for a civilian government to sell the dialogue to the people, Sajjad said. “Some sort of balance has to be found,” he said.
For Pakistan, the Hurriyat remains the only way to put a face to its stake in the Kashmir issue. But until this latest flap put the Hurriyat back at the centre of the row over Kashmir, the separatist conglomerate had been largely marginalised in the political space despite its capacity to shut down parts of the Kashmir Valley.
For far too long, the Hurriyat has been represented by the same old faces – Ali Shah Geelani, Shabir Shah, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Yasin Malik – who have either trotted out the same old stated positions or have been happy to toe the Pakistani line.
But while the Modi government has clearly enunciated what it won’t tolerate during its engagements with Pakistan, there is less clarity on how it intends to take the stalled peace process forward.
“The position adopted by India is both intriguing and avoidable. Intriguing because of the way the issue of the Hurriyat leaders was handled and avoidable because diplomacy needs to be deft and discreet. The Modi government may have gone out on a limb,” Bhaskar said.
(The views expressed by the writer are personal. He tweets as @rezhasan)
Read:Ready for talks but without any pre-conditions, says Pak NSA Sartaj Aziz