“By prevailing over all obstacles and distractions, one may unfailingly arrive at his chosen goal or destination”, Christopher Columbus famously said. And as they walked into the room at New York’s Palace Hotel for a meeting, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif must have realised the shallow truth of that statement. Because both men had surmounted an exceedingly difficult week to reach that room on the American continent that Columbus once discovered. But Columbus had no famous words to describe the destination, because of course, he was heading for India, when he mistakenly reached American shores instead….the two prime ministers seemed similarly lost for a script when they reached their destination as well. One week later, all pretence that the meeting had achieved any outcome has been dropped, as even the plans for the DGMOs to meet as directed by the PMs has been sidelined as the Indian army battled one of the biggest infiltration attempts in the Keran sector and continues to trade cross-LoC fire with Pakistan.
Perhaps the fault was in the PMs' meet itself — which was high on visibility, but low on optics. Hundreds of camera clicks cut through the awkward silence as the two men looked everywhere but at each other. Conscious of being within earshot of the media, they spoke to each other in English only with no attempt at Punjabi bonhomie. The earlier Indian plan for a lengthy one-on-one meeting was scrapped, and the bureaucrats stayed in the room the entire time.
Perhaps the fault was in the stars, and all that happened in the run-up to the talks. The Jammu attacks toughened Singh’s position, while Rahul Gandhi’s attack may have reduced Sharif’s plans for flexibility in the talks. And then the sharp words began to fly. Singh took up his concerns with Pakistan’s actions on the JuD with US President Barack Obama, who, sounding dangerously like a mediator, promised to convey those concerns to Sharif when he meets him next month. A peeved Sharif responded to journalists from NDTV and Geo TV that he was unhappy with Singh’s comments, remarks that built into a firestorm of their own.
After Sharif invoked the UN on Kashmir, Singh hit back — actually naming Sharif and repeating India’s prior positions on the Simla agreement.
As a result, Sharif and Singh walked into their meeting with little to give, and no desire to negotiate. More importantly, they came away with no discussion on the blueprint of future talks. But, given the efforts they had undertaken to get there, “prevailing over all obstacles and distractions”, they should have strived for more. First, because another prime ministerial meeting, that could give their efforts some direction is unlikely for at least a year, until after the Indian elections. Also, because neither leader had much to lose, given Sharif is at the beginning of his term, and Singh at the end of his.
It is also equally clear that Pakistan’s government has decided to cut its losses with this administration in Delhi, and will hold all concessions until elections in India are over. That could well mean more firing at the LoC from Pakistan, and more infiltration attempts by militants in the next few months.
The fault then, is not as the BJP suggests, that the two leaders held talks, but that they didn’t insist on more binding results from them. Officials have since characterised the talks as ‘useful’, adding that the fact there was no disastrous outcome was itself a miracle. But with the lives of the subcontinent’s billion plus at stake, it was a case of nothing ventured, nothing gained, with the two leaders simply “failing to miss the opportunity, to miss the opportunity”.
Suhasini Haidar is foreign affairs editor, CNN-IBN
The views expressed by the author are personal.