Monday, October 12, 2009

Talk time

Why India Should Start Talking to Pakistan. Now.

Politics is a fast changing game; more so international politics. Though statesmen might want to control and constrain it, they may well be in for a few unpleasant surprises. Statesmen desire to maintain the status-quo if they feel it suits their interests. This often clouds their understanding of international politics, narrowing their perspectives and leaving them uninformed of contemporary realities. New Delhi has traditionally followed an unwise status-quo approach towards Pakistan in its reluctance to engage the country in effective dialogue. Do New Delhi’s foreign policy mandarins think that India profits strategically by refusing to engage Pakistan in discussion? Do they assume that by refusing to engage Islamabad, India can continue to hold the moral high ground it thought it had when it broke off relations post-26/11? They seem to, erroneous though this might be. New Delhi is not only losing precious time by isolating itself from Pakistan, but it is also harming its own strategic interests by doing so. A recent track-two meet in Bangkok between former officials of the countries (from ISI, R&AW, Foreign Ministries, and the Defence Forces) that this author had the chance to attend, exposed some interesting insights into the multifarious negative consequences of giving Pakistan the silent treatment.

First of all, former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraff is increasingly becoming a ‘persona non-grata’ among the ruling elites of Pakistan – both civilian and military. There is now an emerging tendency among many Pakistani politicians and retired generals, who once worked under Musharraff, to feign ignorance of his statements and actions (especially vis-à-vis India) and to distance themselves from him. In short, there is a clear unwillingness in Pakistan to own the political legacy of its former military dictator. This has very serious implications for Indo-Pak relations and the peaceful resolution of the Kashmir issue. It is now widely recognized that the 2004-2008 peace process - which was seriously considering out-of-the-box solutions to resolve the outstanding problems between the two countries – not only had the full support of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and former president Musharraff but, through its back-channel route, had even prepared a tentative blueprint for peace. More precisely, it is believed that the bilateral back-channel negotiations had taken the peace process on J&K to a new level. There was only left to share the progress that had been made with the J&K leadership, both mainstream and dissident, many of whom had already welcomed the ‘Musharraff formula’ as a possible way forward. If the new government and the strategic community in Pakistan renege on Musharraff’s past promises, there will be serious implications for Indo-Pak relations, especially for Kashmir. In other words, undoing Musharraff’s legacy also means undoing the Indo-Pak peace process and all it may have achieved. If this process of demolishing Musharraff’s legacy is already underway in Pakistan, then India’s consistent refusal to engage Islamabad will only further contribute to the undoing of the gains of Indo-Pak peace process.

Another emergent trend in Pakistan is to accuse India of sponsoring terrorism there. The Pakistani government seems to be raising this charge against India in various domestic forums and the strategic community is also singing a similar tune in international meetings. While this may not be a wholly new phenomenon, what is perhaps new is the focused and predetermined manner in which these accusations are being made today. India has been accusing Pakistan of sponsoring terrorism for a long time, and now Islamabad is returning the dubious favour. This may be for purely domestic consumption, as the international audience is unlikely to buy this line of argument, however a Pakistani population unfavourably disposed towards India is not something New Delhi should ignore. It is surely counterproductive for Indian interests in the long term.

What precisely is India gaining by not talking to Pakistan? In my opinion, since severing dialogue with the country post-26/11, India has already achieved whatever it ‘possibly can’. Pakistan has accepted that the perpetrators of 26/11 came from its territory and has agreed to prosecute them. India also managed to turn the heat of the international community on to Pakistan post-26/11. There is nothing more that India can reasonably gain from the current scenario. Insisting that New Delhi will only talk to Pakistan after Jama'at-ud-Da'wah (JuD) chief Hafiz Muhammad Saeed is prosecuted may be demanding too much. The Indian government should now work with Pakistan to get Sayeed prosecuted rather than trying to force Pakistan to do so alone; a strategy of pure coercion and compulsion with no reasonable payoff is clearly counterproductive. If New Delhi continues along this route, Pakistan may well up the ante against India (through border incursions, for example) in an attempt to bring the latter to the negotiating table. India’s strategy has never worked against Pakistan, and it is unlikely to work in future.

In international relations, ‘signaling’ is an important tactical measure used by countries to engage adversaries without explicitly stating a position. Such signals, unfortunately, frequently go unread. For example, many analysts asserted that the Pakistani army was sending positive signals to India when the ISI chief attended an Iftar celebration hosted by the Indian High Commission in Islamabad. Yet this was not taken seriously by New Delhi. Many in Pakistan’s strategic community today believe that New Delhi should try to engage the Pakistani army – perhaps the real centre of power – in order to resolve the outstanding issues between the two countries. Talking to the Pakistani army is something New Delhi has never considered, but it should now do so.

There is a perceptible change in Pakistan’s attitude: from being defensive and cornered in the months immediately after 26/11, the country today is on the offensive. This has partly been a result of India’s overuse of coercive diplomacy against Pakistan. Quite apart from the fact that it will worsen the relations between the two countries and make Pakistan feel more insecure (which will in turn prompt it to be more belligerent), it will also encourage the international community to continue to consider the two countries as part of the problem. More so, the more time India spends refusing dialogue with Pakistan, the more difficult it will be for the country to start talking as and when it so decides. International politics is a fast-changing game; and New Delhi must improve its strategy if it expects to be a serious and successful player.

(Happymon Jacob teaches at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)

Source: Greater Kashmir, October 13, 2009. URL:

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