Pakistan high commissioner Abdul Basit declared on April 6 that in the absence of dates for foreign secretary talks, which were pending since January, the ‘comprehensive bilateral dialogue’ between India and Pakistan stands “suspended”. This is a remarkable outcome coming as it does just three months after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s stopover in Lahore on December 25.
In some ways, given the saga of flip-flops and talks about talks over the last couple of years, it is also not entirely surprising. Prime Ministers Modi and Nawaz Sharif have personally invested in bilateral progress, seeing the wider benefits of normalcy, regional connectivity and commerce but even they appear unable to paper over the structural factors and intractable differences that shape the relationship.
The Pakistan army, in its effort to undermine Mr Sharif and control the pace of change, has obstructed progress at key moments. Many in India see the Pathankot attack, a week after Mr Modi’s Lahore visit, as an attempt by elements in the military establishment to derail foreign secretary-level talks that were due in January. The prospects for forward movement have also been constrained for some time by the way both sides frame the dialogue.
India is keen on “keeping the focus firmly on the central issue of terrorism” as foreign secretary S Jaishankar indicated this week, while Pakistan wants to discuss the status of Jammu and Kashmir, which the NDA refuses to countenance.
New Delhi is well within its rights to be miffed with Islamabad’s posturing in recent weeks leading to Mr Basit’s announcement. There were new allegations of India’s spying activities in Balochistan followed by likely leaks to the Pakistan media that the joint investigation team, which recently visited Pathankot, doubted if any Pakistani militants were involved in the attack. India is also liable to see the last-minute block by China of India’s effort to put Jaish-e-Mohammed’s Masood Azhar on UN’s proscribed list of terrorists— as part of an orchestrated attempt by Islamabad to move away from dialogue.
And Mr Basit’s announcement before the agreed process on the Pathankot attack was complete opens the way for more public recriminations, making it difficult for political leaders to narrow differences should they so wish. India’s National Investigation Agency was to visit Pakistan to follow up on its investigation, as part of the agreed terms of reference drawn up by both sides — a prospect that is now in doubt.
Pausing dialogue owing to intractable differences is one kind of optic; backing away midway from an ongoing a terror investigation is another. Islamabad seems to have lost sight of the difference and the high commissioner’s remarks will worsen atmospherics between the countries yet again, unless detailed clarifications follow.