Why are India and Pak struggling to take bilateral talks forward?

  • Sushil Aaron
  • Updated: Apr 17, 2016 22:54 IST
Prime Minister Narendra Modi received by the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan at Lahore, December 25, 2015 (PTI Photo)

India-Pakistan atmospherics can sour quickly. The exuberance seen during the meeting of Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif at Lahore in December has now given way to passive-aggressive exchanges by diplomats.

The April 7 press conference of Pakistan high commissioner Abdul Basit is a case in point. The envoy maintained that “there shouldn’t be any doubt” that Pakistan wants a peaceful relationship with India but quickly said that “cherry-picking” (of issues) cannot lead to peace. He said Jammu and Kashmir is at the root of distrust and declared the dialogue “suspended” since dates for foreign secretary talks were not materialising. He also indicated that a visit to Pakistan by India’s National Investigation Agency to probe the Pathankot attack was in doubt. India coolly replied that the agreed terms of reference specified a return trip by the NIA after Pakistan’s joint investigation team visited India.

Read | India-Pak in touch? Basit’s ‘suspension’ of talks may be false alarm

Many construe such chilly exchanges as progress in itself when compared to the public recriminations seen in the past. Some say Basit’s views do not chime with Pakistan’s foreign ministry, which reiterated on April 14 that secretary-level talks would take place once the modalities were worked out.

This will be cold comfort to Indian conservatives, who will instead note Pakistan army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif’s remarks on April 12, when he spoke of “foreign forces” trying to destabilise Pakistan and the China-Pakistan economic corridor project. For many in New Delhi this — combined with China’s blocking of India’s attempt at the UN to proscribe Jaish-e-Mohammed’s Maulana Masood Azhar — is proof, if any was needed, that the Pakistan army has decided to stall progress and that it expects PM Sharif to comply.

The lack of prospects should not surprise us, given the state of both polities and the way the dialogue was structured in the current context. Engaging India is said to have a measure of public support in Pakistan but the specifics of dialogue is a contested issue for the latter’s political class. PM Sharif has not had the authority to fast-track bilateral progress and is further weakened by revelations in the Panama Papers that his children owned expensive properties in London. In any case, he was never in a position to deliver what India wanted, i.e. prosecution of terrorists plus the winding down of militant infrastructure. And New Delhi, on its part, was not yielding on discussing Kashmir or Siachen.

Read | Prepare the bhakts: PM Modi must use Pak policy to moderate BJP

There is also the complication that even if the people of India and Pakistan want better ties, the most powerful political entities in both countries have little incentive to relax hardline stances. An anti-Indian posture serves the Pakistan army well, consolidates its hold on key institutions and reinforces its importance in the popular imagination. Likewise, a peace agenda with Pakistan does not sit easily with the BJP’s aggressive anti-minority posture in India. There is an inherent tension between Modi the aspiring statesman and Modi the election-winner for the BJP, which plays out in ties with Pakistan. As PM he will see the point of greater connectivity and trade, but as a politician he has to make that deliverable contingent on narrowing the scope of dialogue, which Islamabad cannot accept for its own domestic reasons. Political calculations generate competing choreographic preferences. India wants some demonstrable action on terrorist groups to move ahead; allowing Masood Azhar to be listed as a terrorist at the UN would have been a useful step but evidently Islamabad is unwilling to do so without getting its issues of concern on the bilateral agenda.

Hence the difficulty of scheduling foreign secretary talks but keeping up appearances. The point of high-level contact, via national security advisers, seems to be to avoid terror attacks and manage their fallout. Many consider that a perfectly acceptable outcome. Both countries look inward, pursue growth and deal with neighbours only when necessary. There are two problems with this. As Kashmir has shown this week, no region remains calm for too long. Two, ideological forces create consequences and events — and we have plenty of motivated actors on both sides. Governments need to prepare for instability and one way of doing that is to thicken institutional contact, not merely personalise it.

Lastly, Pakistani analysts say that Nawaz Sharif is the best bet for India, since it is unclear what kind of an actor the system will throw up later — a point the Pakistan army and the BJP ought to note, however self-serving that advice may appear to be. Civility may be useful now but India and Pakistan cannot let serious scenarios emerge while their governments and societies avoid each other.

Read | Now, Pakistan says door open for dialogue with India

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