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Another bend in the road

The India-Pakistan joint statement was not the best-crafted consensus. But at least a start has been made, writes Barkha Dutt.

india Updated: Jul 17, 2009 22:10 IST

Over the next few days you will hear many different theories on what went wrong and right in Egypt. The India-Pakistan Joint Statement — the strange index of progress and failure at every summit meeting — may be variously described as both a breakthrough and surrender, though both interpretations have nothing in common. Departures from both countries’ stated positions in the statement (no mention of Kashmir; agreeing to put Balochistan down in black and white) will evoke both agitated anxiety and excitement, depending on your point of view. And sadly, the deconstruction of a single line- “action on terrorism should not be linked to the composite dialogue process” — may dwarf the other real gains that the meeting of the two Prime Ministers achieved.

Watching the developments unfold in Egypt — with all the accompanying drama and intrigue that is typical of any India-Pakistan encounter — I was struck by how strange it is that so much should hinge on whether that piece of paper called a ‘Joint Statement’ is produced at the end of it all. Yet, we in the media, with our ready and abundant supply of generalisations, are also culpable. Had there not been one — there would have been enough journalists who would have termed the meeting a flop; ‘freeze’ would have replaced ‘thaw’ in the headlines. The public scrutiny, the political expectations — it’s all enough to create inordinate pressure on negotiators.

As we paced up and down the shiny corridors of the Prime Minister’s hotel watching a one-hour meeting stretch into three, much of that pressure was palpable. India had clearly entered the meeting aware that not talking to Pakistan was no longer a workable option; going forward, silence could no longer be the syntax of choice. And that conclusion made perfect sense. Over the last few months, there has been a gradual acknowledgment within official circles that there is no real alternative to resuming some sort of dialogue process with Islamabad, whether composite or otherwise.

The first indication that it was only a matter of time before talks were back on track came with the Prime Minister’s speech to Parliament. Even in terms of international leverage, officials have privately acknowledged that the Pakistan army’s operations against the Taliban in Swat had restored some of its goodwill, not just with its own people, but in the global eye as well. The cat-and-mouse games on the Lashkar chief Hafiz Saeed may continue through his trial, but even hard-boiled cynics had begun to concede that the Pakistan dossier on Mumbai indicated that Islamabad had taken “some steps against terrorism.” For India to continue to look the other way would have made us seem obdurate and unbending. And besides, the truth is, that cutting off official contact would have achieved precious little anyway.

So, we all knew that the meeting with the two PMs was aiming for a handshake, even if not a hug, both literally and metaphorically. Even before they met we were told there could be a joint statement, maybe even an American-style, joint media appearance. The Pakistan foreign secretary even told me on record that such a development was “probably unavoidable”. But when the two diplomats on either side began their negotiations, they realised, it was not going to be that simple. What was the stumbling block? Basically, Pakistan was pushing for the formal, structured composite dialogue, with it’s eight separate categories of issues to get back on the road. India was arguing that this was the time to talk about terrorism and in any case, wasn’t it time to review the efficacy of old frameworks? As one Indian official told me: “if we keep using the old formula again and again, history will just repeat itself.” But several rounds of negotiations later the disagreement over the roadmap could not be bridged.

And so, when the two PMs had gone through the mandatory photo-op (carefully refusing to say anything to journalists in the room) and sat down to business, they didn’t have a joint statement they could agree on. Word spread quickly that the joint statement had run into rough weather. Outside in the corridors, even before India and Pakistan could agree on sharing intelligence, journalists across the border, had set up their own mechanism to share “real-time information.” And soon, we were reporting that there might not be a joint statement at all.

But, when everyone else left the room, and the two political leaders sat down to talking without their minders, they were clear that they definitely wanted a symbol of some forward movement. So, both foreign secretaries exited to a separate room to try and iron out the creases. As the hours stretched and canapés and soup were wheeled in (there was even a bill on the trolley, and we chuckled about who would pick up the tab) many debated whether we may see another Agra summit-like situation.

Yet, in the end, there was a statement — perhaps one with too much ambiguity and awkward phrasing in a key sentence (de-linking action on terrorism from dialogue), but a statement nevertheless. Sadly, the sentence left room for so many interpretations, that the Indian and Pakistani briefings on the same statement, didn’t have much in common. Even the more contentious inclusion of Balochistan (and from a Pakistani perspective, the statement’s overt silence on Kashmir) was ignored in the din over this one sentence.

But, I think we need to understand the complex terrain India was navigating in Egypt, walking a tightrope between needing to resume dialogue and not conceding more space than it should. Yes, it may not have been the best-crafted consensus, but it was a tentative start. And tentative starts are still better than dead-ends.

(Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV)

The views expressed by the author are personal