Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
Burying the India-Pakistan dialogue for now
The foreign ministers of India and Pakistan have returned home, licking their wounds from their latest failed engagement. Both sides are blaming each other for not only failing to make any progress, but also souring ties further, with Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and his Indian counterpart S.M.Krishna openly sparring at a news conference following the talks in Islamabad. Qureshi suggested Krishna did not seem to have the full mandate to conduct negotiations because directions were being given from New Delhi throughout the day-long talks, drawing rebuke from India which said the foreign minister had been insulted on Pakistani soil.
Some people are asking why bother going through this painful exercise at this time when the chances of of the two sides making even the slightest concession are next to zero? India and Pakistan may actually be doing each other more damage by holding these high-profile, high-pressure meetings where the domestic media and the opposition in both the countries is watching for the slightest sign of capitulation by either government.
It’s the world’s longest running soap opera, made for great television viewing, says a blog on the Indian National Interest. “These events have become the drivers of the process each such opportunity attracting saturated media coverage and intense public scrutiny in both countries.”
And these are only talks about what to talk about since they can’t even agree on whether terrorism should be front and centre of the dialogue as New Delhi wants or the row over Kashmir be given top billing as Pakistan wants. ”If anything, the precarious relationship between India and Pakistan deteriorated after the countries’ two foreign ministers haggled in day-long sessions on July 15 – not over substance but over what issues they would discuss and when they would discuss them,” argues Michael Hughes in the Huffington Post
That’s pretty much been the the way the implacable foes have approached each public engagement for several decades except for bursts of high-powered diplomacy such as Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee riding the first bus service between New Delhi to Lahore in 1999 in a dramatic gesture to breach the walls of distrust that some compared to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s trip to Israel. Some of us who followed Vajpayee to the impenetrable border thought history was being made and that the whole India-Pakistan narrative was being transformed. But, as has happened so often in the past, Vajpayee’s peace-making ended in spectacular failure when three months later his government confronted hundreds of thousands of fighters backed by the Pakistani army who had occupied India’s part of Kashmir.
Two years later,Vajpayee made a second bold move for peace inviting President Pervez Musharraf for talks in Agra, the city of the Taj Mahal, to try and find a way to end half a century of animosity and get the two countries to live at peace with each other. Those marathon talks, again under the harsh glare of the media camped outside the hotel where they met, ended in failure with a bitterly disappointed Musharraf - who was equally determined in his pursuit of peace – leaving for home in the dead of the night with barely a goodbye. Again, if you were there that night, you couldn’t help thinking tthat the burden of expectations ultimately proved too much for the two unlikely peace-makers – Vajpayee a dyed-in-the-wool Hindu nationalist leader and Musharraf, a military general who had fought Indian forces.
In hindsight then, the only times when the two countries have made real progress and even coming close to a breakthrough on Kashmir, have been when high-powered interlocutors have held talks away from the public eye, often in third countries. Three years ago these interlocutors were nearly ready to deliver a deal on Kashmir that has kept them apart for 60 years but political instability in Pakistan leading to Musharraf’s resignation dashed all hopes. Again it was done in secret and these details are only now coming out. Which only goes to show that the only way the neighbours can overcome the “trust deficit” is to conduct negotiations under the radar, allowing them to explore a range of options including those they wold flinch from in the public glare. It also gives their governments the cover of plausible deniability.
At the moment, the two sides seem so far apart, though, that even a worthwhile Track Two engagement seem a bridge too far. New evidence has emerged that Pakistan’s ISI was involved in the Mumbai assault of 2008, Indian officials said based on the interrogation of Pakistan- American David Headley who has pleaded guilty to working with the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba to plan the attacks. Indeed, a top Indian official went public with the claims, just ahead of the foreign ministers talks, effectively sealing their fate.
Which begs the question why Delhi went through the talks in the first place ? “ Outside of the obvious attempt to assuage U.S. leaders, the biggest riddle is why India would ever agree to meet with Pakistan to discuss issues of trust in the first place, when India now has definitive proof in hand that Pakistan’s intelligence agency, army and navy were in league with the hateful Islamic jihadist group responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks that led to the deaths of 173 people.” Hughes says.
Equally, the mood is hardening on the other side of the border. Pakistan, as I wrote in this analysis, is the main power broker in the quickening search for a political settlement of the Afghan conflict, leaving India counting its losses after investing blood and treasure. The military led by General Ashfaq Kayani, who has just been given a rare three-year extension, is no mood to compromise with India as it seizes the upper hand in Afghanistan.
“India must awaken to the reality that Pakistan’s army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani smells blood and thinks he can knock India out of the box in Afghanistan and he certainly isn’t going to wait for the trust talks to come to fruition. The U.S. desperately needs Pakistan – evidenced by the mad cash the U.S. has dished out – and Kayani knows this and is going to make sure Pakistan has a foothold in Kabul when the dust settles. It’s a good wager the wise General isn’t going to let a minor issue impede progress, including the fact that Pakistan’s entire armed forces have been implicated in a terror plot,” Hughes wrote.
Is it time then to inter the India-Pakistan dialogue, at least in its current, theatrical form ? ”There are too many layers to the Indo-Pak engagement on both sides of the border. The process as we understand it today — driven by events and personalities — is not only a non-starter but akin to a proverbial dead horse. When you are riding a dead horse, buying a stronger whip or greater riding ability won’t help it move forward. Harnessing several dead horses together to increase the speed or asserting that “This is the way we always have ridden this horse” won’t help either, ” says the Indian National Interest. “It is time for India to dismount this dead horse.”