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Plain vanilla diplomacy

It says something about Indo-Pakistan relations that the term Snafu (situation normal all fouled up) reflects a positive state of affairs. The lowest possible expectations were attached to the meeting of the two foreign ministers.

india Updated: Jul 27, 2011 23:37 IST

It says something about Indo-Pakistan relations that the term Snafu (situation normal all fouled up) reflects a positive state of affairs. The lowest possible expectations were attached to the meeting of the two foreign ministers. There was as much commentary about their age gap as there was about the contents of their briefing books. Ever since the Sharm-el-Sheikh fiasco, the majority of such meetings have been marked by violent disagreements and ambush tactics. The goal this time was simple: a high-level bilateral meeting that did not go down in flames. Holding a formulaic bilateral in which the two sides politely agree to disagree on terrorism and Kashmir, say they should have long-winded dialogues on points of difference and both embrace uncontroversial confidence-building measures is something that has been missing from the relationship. In the past such humdrum diplomacy would have been grounds for complaint. Today it is seen as an accomplishment.

The real question is what has been behind the past few years of destructive dialogue and whether or not these drivers could resurface later. What has undermined talks is not completely clear, but most fingers point to the hostility of the military to even the appearance of a softening India policy. This seems to have reflected General Ashfaq Kayani’s predetermined hostility to India and a Pakistani sense that geopolitical circumstances were increasingly favourable. This has changed dramatically over the past few months. The Abbottabad raid and the subsequent falling apart of the US-Pakistan relationship and the worsening domestic militancy problem have contributed to a sense of siege, especially in Rawalpindi. Pakistan’s new foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, said that there was a consensus among her country’s political parties regarding a new India engagement. That was never in doubt: the hand of friendship has been strongest from across the border when the generals are not in charge. What she did not say, but has been assumed in New Delhi, is that General Kayani is now part of that consensus.

Whether this foreign ministers’ meeting is a stepping stone to the sort of heady forward movement seen in the early years of Nawaz Sharif’s reign and the last years of Pervez Musharraf’s rule, is still unclear. Military backing for the dialogue may well be tactical and if the neighbourhood’s tide turns again in Pakistan’s favour then the present niceties may be a flash in the geopolitical pan. What New Delhi will hope is that Ms Khar’s visit reflects something more substantial. Namely that the same revelation that came to Mr Musharraf, a realisation that hostility to India was exacting an impossible price from Pakistan, has come to his successors in khaki.