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Commitment phobia

india Updated: Jul 22, 2010 23:14 IST
Prem Shankar Jha
Prem Shankar Jha
Hindustan Times
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From the moment Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi agreed to take a second round of questions from Pakistani journalists in Islamabad last week, it was clear that the much awaited — and the carefully choreographed — meeting between the two foreign ministers had exploded in their faces. The anger felt in India is, therefore, understandable. But it’s obscured the question that everyone should have immediately asked: what went wrong?

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s apparent that, starting from the Thimpu meeting of the two prime ministers, both sides had prepared meticulously for the talks. What seems to have been absent, however, was an understanding of the other side’s needs and constraints and of the demands that would emerge from them. Neither had, therefore, fashioned constructive responses that would have taken these into account. The first exchange that revealed the gap between the two delegations was Qureshi’s retort to Minister for External Affairs SM Krishna’s mention of Hafiz Saeed — that the Indian Home Secretary GK Pillai’s statement on Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Saeed guiding and monitoring the terrorist attack on Mumbai was ‘uncalled for’. Qureshi didn’t say that the statement itself was wrong, only that it shouldn’t have been made in a public forum on the very eve of the Islamabad meeting. It’s difficult to disagree with him.

The news itself wasn’t new. But by making it public just before the talks, India brought both the Pakistani army and the large right wing of the Pakistani media into the picture. Last week both were seething with rage. Qureshi was, therefore, left with only two choices: either brazenly rebut the accusation or get something else out of the conference that allows him to claim a measure of success. He tried to do the latter.

According to media reports, Qureshi suggested to Krishna that they should make a statement that the two governments would take up the Kashmir and Siachen issues in their next meeting. Had Krishna understood the pressure Qureshi was under, he could have met him halfway with ease. But the moment he heard the ‘K’ word, Krishna dug his heels in. This left Qureshi with nothing to show for the conference.

Despite this, the talks didn’t break down. Qureshi accepted Krishna’s observation that Kashmir had an elected government and a chief minister. He also referred to Indian Kashmir as Jammu and Kashmir and not as Indian-Occupied Kashmir. Krishna, on his part, also tacitly accepted that Pillai’s statement had been uncalled for. It’s ironic that these remarkable acts of courage are precisely the ones for which both ministers are being pilloried in their own countries.

But if Delhi didn’t understand Islamabad’s constraints, Islamabad didn’t understand Delhi’s either. India has been under attack from Pakistan-based terrorists for over a decade. Pakistan has insisted that it is unable to control them and is itself their victim. Then came two pieces of detailed, first-hand information — from the confessions of Kasab and Headley — that confirm that the Pakistani army was behind the Mumbai attack, and that the ISI is not only sheltering Lashkar-e-Tayyeba terrorists and elements of the Taliban, but also helping them to forge links with al-Qaeda.

Delhi couldn’t make any commitments, let alone time-bound ones, till Pakistan was at least prepared to admit that its army had continued to use terrorism as an instrument of policy abroad. But that is something that no elected government in Pakistan has had the courage, or indeed the power, to do.

Prem Shankar Jha is a former media adviser to the prime minister. The views expressed by the author are personal