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Search for a new route

If the Indian PM really has his heart set on building a new paradigm with Pakistan, he needs to find a way of talking to the people who really matter there: the Army and the ISI. Barkha Dutt examines...

india Updated: Feb 19, 2010 22:56 IST

If you were to believe the public positions of India and Pakistan’s officials, the impending talks between the two foreign secretaries are slated to be diplomacy’s version of a bad television debate — one defined by a dramatic dialectic of differences rather than the sober middle ground of genuine conversation. The apparent absence of a meeting point is hardly surprising given that New Delhi says it wants to focus on terrorism and Islamabad is keen to push ahead with Kashmir, maybe even Balochistan.

Nomenclature has also tripped up the talks. “Exploratory and limited” are India’s adjectives of choice for the talks — a description that has sent up dark clouds of anger in Pakistan. And then there’s Pune and the horrific sense of déjà vu it triggers in our collective subconscious. The thought of hapless young students in their twenties being blown up by some lunatic bomber yards away from a spot previously zeroed in on by 26/11 architect David Headley, creates an intuitive sense of panic and paranoia. And inflammatory, dare-you hate speeches by Hafiz Saeed and his ilk can blow out a peacenik’s Wagah candle.

And yet, talk we must. Not because it will necessarily salvage a relationship that is — according to one senior official — “pretty much in ruins”. But because — as more than one friend across the border has pointed out — indefinite silence at our end only throttles the voices of moderation and sanity in Pakistan. And because, there is some serious merit in the assessment that while Pakistan’s positions itself as an indispensable ally to the US, India’s decision to disengage is now yielding diminishing returns in the international community. And also because turning your back on a turbulent neighbour whose volatility could take you down with him is a luxury that strategists cannot afford. This, after all, as one diplomat said, is not a video game.

The problem with India’s present Pakistan policy is not the decision to talk per se but the complete absence of consistency. Of course, smart diplomacy changes with circumstance. But, in this case the constantly shifting rhetoric doesn’t seem to be a response to an altered context. Or if external evidence points to the contrary, the government doesn’t seem to think it necessary to take the people into confidence.

So, for months we were told that Islamabad had done precious little to move on the 26/11 trial. Now, the foreign minister says that “some progress” had been made and this was one of the determining factors in the decision to slot these talks. We are also told that contrary to perception, the doors for dialogue had never been shut. After all the foreign secretaries have been working the phone lines and the foreign ministers met in New York. So why is it then that just days before the foreign secretary talks were announced, S.M. Krishna and Shah Mahmood Qureshi were resolutely against a bilateral meeting when both of them were in London? Why did the political rhetoric suddenly slide from sharp to soft? And does this mean that another terror attack will propel it right back to cold freeze? Or is there a real attempt to insulate the dialogue process from incidents of terrorism and hardliner sabotage?

In other words, though the de-linking clause in the Sharm-el-Sheikh joint statement was blamed on awkward drafting — did it in fact hit the nail on the head? The truth is that since the political backlash in Egypt, the Centre has tip-toed its way around its Pakistan agenda, sometimes aggressive, sometimes friendly and often confused. We all know that the PM is personally driving this peace process. But, perhaps murmurs within his own party have prevented a clearer public articulation of how this policy is envisaged, leaving many to wonder — is there a long-term plan, or are we making it up as we go along?

But if the PM really has his heart and mind set on building a new paradigm with Pakistan, he needs to gamble with much more than a tentatively approached meeting of bureaucrats. For starters, let’s find a way of talking to the people who really matter in Pakistan: the army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Yes, there may be a public backlash to talking with groups accused of fomenting terrorism. But since we have correctly decided to engage with Pakistan, shouldn’t the negotiation be with the players who are empowered to influence real change? What’s the purpose of talks with a leadership that has lost control over the terrorist infrastructure or never had it to begin with? Till this date we haven’t been told what transpired when the ISI chief met with India’s military attaches in Islamabad. But presumably, that’s where we should be looking for both negotiation and change.

Then, there’s the much-vaunted composite dialogue that is exercising Islamabad so intensely at this point. But isn’t it time to step back and ask whether a more adventurous and imaginative approach may be needed to solving an intractable equation? Where has five rounds of the composite dialogue got us thus far? Are the eight different issues that are covered within the gambit of this process really germane to the relationship? If we are completely honest, it all essentially boils down to terrorism and Kashmir. It may be time to create a new template that can navigate both.

And lastly, can the over-hyped phenomenon of the joint statement stop being the barometer of success and failure? The media frenzy around whether there will be a statement or not is not just banal; it’s also dangerous, sometimes forcing the hands of governments before they are ready. (Think Agra; Think Egypt).

But most important is the issue of transparency. India’s Pakistan policy must not remain wrapped up in contradictions and opaqueness. Because in the end, without public opinion on board the peace caravan, the end result may just be an accident.

Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV


The views expressed by the author are personal