The cancellation of the India-Pakistan NSA level talks has cast a cloud over the future of the bilateral relationship. With Pakistan’s NSA Sartaj Aziz making it clear that they would not propose talks between the two countries on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, the key question now is how the two sides will pick the thread of dialogue.
The wider Indian strategic community appears split right down the middle over the government's approach to the NSA talks. But there is a consensus that the India-Pakistan journey has got a lot tougher and only two men can pick the threads again – Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his counterpart Nawaz Sharif.
There are two clear views with regard to the government's redlines - that Pakistan's NSA could not meet Hurriyat and the agenda had to be solely around terror and other issues could not be brought up.
One view holds that the government had boxed itself into the corner last year itself when it cancelled the FS talks on the issue of Pakistan's High Commissioner meeting Hurriyat leaders; that this was unnecessary and had given undue importance to the grouping; and this year, the government had to reiterate the redline to justify its older position.
"What is the big deal? I recall that after Hurriyat met General Pervez Musharraf before the Agra summit, their leaders briefed us on every element of the conversation. A cup of tea at a reception alters nothing," a former intelligence official told HT.
The other view is that the government has taken a much needed, strong position - it wants to establish the irrelevance of outfits like Hurriyat which are not a part of the democratic framework. For too long, India had been ‘soft’.
The current stance would weaken Pakistan's narrative on how Kashmiri aspirations are distinct from what the elections there throw up. So the issue is not Hurriyat - but whether India can succeed in taking Kashmir out of the India-Pakistan bilateral box in the long-term.
Read:Failed diplomacy: Why Indo-Pak NSA talks collapsed
On the second redline too, there is a divide.
Some believe that it was but natural that Pakistan would raise Kashmir, especially after Nawaz Sharif drew flak after agreeing to a joint statement at Ufa which did not explicitly mention the issue. A source recalled an example from history. Sharif had told then PM I K Gujral when they had met in Male in 1997.
“We cannot take Kashmir from you, and you cannot give Kashmir to us even if you want to. So what is the harm just talking about it?” Pakistan’s civilian leadership, this school of thought argues, has no maneuvering space and democrats there have been even more vocal about Kashmir than the army leadership to be seen as committed to the issue.
The second view however is that it was absolutely legitimate for India to stick to Ufa pact and spell it out for Pakistan; that there would be no talks but on terror; and only when there was a growing convergence on terror, other issues could be discussed and resolved, as Swaraj articulated yesterday.
A middle way
But there are some who believe that diplomacy is precisely about finding a way through these divided opinions.
A former ambassador who knows the region well says, “It is absolutely valid for India to have such redlines. The problem was in tactics; it was all ineptly handled. India should not have spelt out the red-lines in such explicit and stark terms.
It seemed like it was more geared to a domestic base rather than the other country.” He said that if External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had been more under-stated, had highlighted the positives of engagement more, Pakistan may still have had more space.
Read:'Battle of egos, hilarious directives': Pak media on NSA talks collapse
SD Muni, professor emeritus at JNU, says there was one way for the Indian side to maintain redlines, yet have the dialogue.
The Hurriyat leaders could have been detained, blocking the possibility of a meeting. India’s position would have been implemented, and even if Pakistan made a noise about it, they would have been able to do little.
On the agenda, India could have stuck to terror, while allowing Pakistan to come and say what they wanted to. When Aziz would have raised Kashmir in formal talks, NSA Ajit Doval could have said, in the meeting, that they had nothing to say on the issue since that was not the core agenda at the moment.
This is however now in the past, and the big question is how the two countries can re-engage given the almost incompatible outlook on the ‘redlines’ and the trust deficit.
Do remember that after the cancellation of the FS talks last year, for a long time, revival was difficult because of the question of who would take the initiative. Pakistan insisted it must be India, and it was only when India asked for the meeting at Ufa that there was some movement.
Who initiates the engagement; what is the level of this engagement; when do the two sides meet; what is the agenda; what are the conditions under which the meetings happen are all issues that have to be sorted out yet again.
The former diplomat quoted above believes all is not lost yet. Modi and Sharif have had three engagements so far – two meetings in Delhi and Ufa, and a brief interaction in Kathmandu.
“I have spoken to people around both, and the cordiality and warmth between the two is deep. The principals will have to take the lead and revive the process.” He also says that a lesson from Ufa is to avoid the business of joint statements and communiqués after meetings since it unleashes competitive interpretations.
Read:Pak says NSA talks not possible, India terms move unfortunate
Sanjeev Tripathi, former chief of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and now a BJP member, says given the general environment that is created before public talks, often because of the media discourse, another approach has to be explored.
“Open engagement does not seem possible at the moment given the obstacles. It is perhaps best to have covert engagement and quiet diplomacy and build confidence, and only when there is something more tangible, go public.”
But even to establish the back-channel, the fundamental pre-requisite is getting the principal leaders to bless the dialogue. The question is if Modi and Sharif have the intent, space, strength and flexibility to do that.