Any dialogue between India and Pakistan constitutes a strange dance in which both sides circle, coming together only at the end of two lengthy solo routines. The final duet is often indecisive and short-lived. But the two countries are forced, by common history and shared geography, to keep trying to create a choreography of common interests. A similar dance routine has begun again.
What makes this significant today is that New Delhi is demanding a price for the Mumbai 26/11 attack, however symbolic. Circumstances have made its hand stronger than normal. The Pakistan government is clearly on the backfoot. Its relationship with the United States is in a parlous state and even its most faithful backers, Saudi Arabia and China, are reaching the limits of their support. Rawalpindi’s original expectation seems to have been a future in which US troops would leave Afghanistan, leaving them in control of Kabul. Now it is clear Washington will remain militarily active in Afghanistan for years to come.
The Pakistan economy is in tatters and Islamabad seems to have expected the US to bailout it out of economic problems, something that the US Congress will not do. In this weakened state, Islamabad has already taken trade out of the set of policies which it tied to a settlement in Kashmir. Pakistan is now even asking for Sir Creek and Siachen Glacier agreements independent of the Kashmir issue. India should not expect full-scale surrender by Pakistan on all issues. In fact, Pakistan is so lacking in internal political cohesion, with almost every arm of the government in conflict with the other, that this would be an impossible exercise. However, India can and should extract a price on 26/11 — especially given the widespread belief in Pakistan’s ruling class that it would never have to pay a price for the terror strike.
The unusual degree of isolation Pakistan faces in the international sphere and the unusually weak hold of its military in the domestic sphere are providing India a degree of leverage over its neighbour that it has not enjoyed for a while. Polls show Pakistanis dislike the United States more than they do India. The country is remarkably isolated in the international arena with even its closest ally, Beijing, rapping it on the wrist over terrorism. New Delhi can afford to be mildly generous on some issues with Pakistan — the sole exception being Mumbai and terror. The muted noise emanating from Islamabad on its traditional pet issue of Kashmir is an indication that this is a well understood fact in Pakistan now. There will be those who argue talks with Pakistan will not solve any major issues. That goes almost by definition.
What they accomplish is to set the contours of a bilateral relationship. India should not be in any doubt that these are moving steadily to a position that favours New Delhi. What that trends hold for the nature of a final settlement is why India should continue to talk with the world’s most dangerous neighbour.