India is keen to keep the dialogue going with Pakistan. But it isn’t quite sure whether Shah Mahmood Qureshi has the patience and the flexibility to grapple with complexities strewing the way forward.
The Pakistan foreign minister came across as petulant, even cussed, in the talks while seeking to have his way, at times unmindful and inattentive to points made by the Indian side. “You cannot negotiate with him. He’s convinced about his views and not willing to moderate his position,” said a source privy to the talks. “It has a lot to do with his personality. He wanted to parent and own the process.”
In the end, however, Qureshi was the beachhead that scuttled the very exercise on which he wanted his imprint. India for its part is willing to wait for “good sense” to prevail without compounding recrimination — as was evident from S.M. Krishna’s refusal to join issues with the Pakistani minister who tried showing him as one not in control of his brief.
Informed sources said Krishna’s invite to Qureshi to visit India by the year-end remained on the table. But to old-timers, his conduct, notably the press conference he gave on Friday, appeared a repeat of Pervez Musharraf’s theatrics during his failed Agra Summit with A.B. Vajpayee exactly nine years ago, on July 16.
Emulating the deposed military ruler, he hyped up Kashmir and sought to show his interlocutor as weak.
But why did Qureshi cause Krishna so much affront? Was he under instructions to stall or derail the process to buy the Pakistan army time to dilute or deflect fresh evidence (based on David Hedley’s revelations) linking their top brass to 26/11?
Be that as it may. The dialogue was on track until lunchtime on July 15 with officials from both sides agreeing on talking points for reporting progress to the media. The understanding was to frontload the “easily achievable” by opening talks on bilateral trade, water sharing, people-to-people contact and cultural and media exchanges.
Meetings on these and the Sir Creek issue — on which Delhi offered to assemble a paper based on a 2008 proposal — would have built the ambience for taking up complex subjects: Siachen, J&K, Peace and Security. But Qureshi vetoed the idea. He insisted on a timeline for simultaneously taking up all issues. The modalities he advocated left no room for building the “propitious climate” India wanted for taking up the cumbersome three.
In short, Qureshi made action on terrorism incumbent on Krishna agreeing to a calendar to discuss J&K, Siachen and Peace and Security. The Indian leader resisted these stonewalling tactics. He was amenable to going public with his willingness to talk on issues flagged by Pakistan. But he wasn’t about to bind himself to any timeline.
Given the way the system works in Pakistan, Qureshi couldn’t have devised the “all or nothing” approach considered impractical by India. For that reason, observers here considered churlish his claim of being in control of the talks while Krishna received instructions from Delhi.
The reality was to the contrary. At one stage, Indian interlocutors were left alone in the room, their hosts exiting en masse for in-house consultations. Or was it for instructions from the top — a euphemism for the army’s general headquarters?
Even if that was so, the hosts were within their rights to consult higher-ups. Ditto for Krishna.
But Qureshi, driven by optics for the Pakistani audience, didn’t even pretend empathizing with his guest’s anxiety to chart a course that would reassure skeptics back home and build public support fo the dialogue.
That’s where he failed perhaps as a diplomat!