Ifs and buts seem the dominate characteristics of India’s Pakistan policy despite changes at the highest level, which suggest that there could be greater engagement. From a position of inflexibility on 26/11, Foreign minister S.M. Krishna now says a few steps from Pakistan will be quite enough. Then we have Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram who may hold bilateral talks at the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (Saarc) meet in Islamabad. Then again, New Delhi may not, since Saarc is a multilateral forum. In his second term, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s action in replacing a hawkish National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan with a Pakistan expert and former foreign secretary Shiv Shankar Menon was read as his determination to get things moving. But noises coming from across the border suggest that Islamabad can in no way guarantee any decrease in the terrorist activity that flows from its soil. In which case, what can be the starting point for talks? Both sides agree that there is no option to talks but neither seems able to take things forward as they stand now.
The dominant sentiment that has emanated from the UPA government in its second avatar has been one of confusion worse confounded on Pakistan. Not that we have covered ourselves in foreign policy glory in other neighbouring countries. The fate of the Tamils, once so beloved of our political class, seems long forgotten after President Mahinda Rajapaksa prosecuted a ruthless war against them. Any movement with Pakistan comes along with the so-called backroom talks. But we rarely get to know how much these influence the outcome of policy and if indeed they do not serve to detract from the bread and potatoes issues that are put on the table.
There is one strand of thought in the government that feels we can put Pakistan aside and get on with our lives. That is not possible when sensitive states like Kashmir, and indeed other parts of India, live with the spectre of terror hanging over them. Which is why there has to be at least a credible policy on how to deal with a difficult neighbour who cannot be wished away. The government must either grasp the nettle, howsoever painful this might be, or continue with its present ad hoc policy. It would be useful if it would speak in one voice on a subject that so profoundly affects millions of Indians.