Pakistan and India: After Yekaterinburg and Sharm-el-Sheikh; now we have Thimphu

April 25, 2010

bhutanAnother international summit. Another chance for the leaders of India and Pakistan to find a way of getting their countries to talk to each other.

After last year’s aborted attempt at peace-making, first in Yekaterinburg and then in Sharm-el-Sheikh, expectations are running low that the prime ministers of India and Pakistan will make much headway when they meet at a SAARC summit in Thimphu, Bhutan this week.

But given that cynicism is the preserve of the intellectually lazy, I’m going to resist the temptation to jump into that safe and comfortable foxhole and instead see where these talks might lead us.

India broke off the formal peace process with Pakistan after the 2008 attack on Mumbai blamed on the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba and both countries have yet to find a forum in which the two neighbours might — if not resolve their differences — at least find a way to talk to each other.

I was wrong, by the way – last year I thought the issues that divided India and Pakistan were not so much about form but about substance.  It turns out that it is a lot about form – at least for now in finding the right form for dialogue. The problems of substance – and they are legion – will come only later.

The main issue is that Pakistan is insisting on a resumption of the formal peace process, the so-called Composite Dialogue. India wants a more cautious return to talks which would stop short of the Composite Dialogue until Pakistan takes more action against the Lashkar-e-Taiba.

“Forget Kashmir and terrorism or even Afghanistan and water, the current stalemate between India and Pakistan is all down to one word,” writes Siddharth Varadarajan in The Hindu. “Both countries publicly say that Dialogue is the only way forward. Yet each is paralysed by the name ‘Composite’. New Delhi is so allergic to it that it will not accept its use, while Islamabad has become so attached to the C word that it insists there can be nothing else.”

Since The Hindu is close to the thinking of the prime minister’s office in Delhi, it’s worth paying attention to what he says:

“In the run up to this week’s Saarc summit in Bhutan, where Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will meet Yusuf Raza Gilani on the sidelines, Indian officials are resigned to keeping the bilateral relationship in a ‘holding pattern.’ Their logic is that if relations cannot improve, then they should not be allowed to deteriorate either. As a short-term strategy, the holding pattern strategy works fine. There are always small things that can be done at that level too. But an aeroplane cannot circle the runway endlessly. The longer it is up in the air, the greater is the likelihood of a disastrous descent. That is why planning for an orderly landing is a much better strategy.

“In Thimphu, Dr. Singh must try and find a way of doing that. One possibility is for the two prime ministers to task their foreign secretaries with reviewing what has been accomplished on the terrorism front as well as in the last few rounds of the composite dialogue, with a view to expediting the resolution of existing problems and disputes. Such a mandate would foreground the necessity of a dialogue addressing all outstanding issues while sidestepping, for the moment, any nomenclatural disagreement. It would accomplish the stated Indian objective while allowing Mr. Gilani to return without having surrendered Islamabad’s stand on the ‘resumption’ of the composite dialogue.”

In Islamabad, Pakistan’s Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira made a not dissimilar point when I quizzed him a week or so ago about the resumption of peace talks with India.  On the question of whether the two prime ministers would be able to agree in Bhutan to resume the Composite Dialogue, he said that, “I am confident talks will start again very soon.” When I asked whether this meant the Composite Dialogue, his answer was that it would be “The process towards that.”

Somewhere in “the process towards that” is where we have to look for progress in Bhutan.

That of course does not mean any decision to take talks forward will lead to an easing of tension between India and Pakistan. Both countries are at loggerheads over Afghanistan, embroiled in an increasingly acrimonious row over water and bitterly divided over the Lashkar-e-Taiba.

But it also suggests we should not be completely blinded by cynicism.

Also remember the mood was very bleak in 2003, shortly before the two countries agreed a ceasefire on the Line of Control in Kashmir which perhaps, of all the agreements and talks held over the past 10 years or so, has been the most enduring signal of detente.

(Photo: The Gankar Punsun glacier in Bhutan/Adnan Abidi)


Comments are closed.