It takes two to tango

The visit of S.M. Krishna, Indian external affairs minister, resumed a duet after 17 months between a glib and youthful Hina Rabbani Khar and her bumbling Indian counterpart. While Ms Khar’s couture was ignored this time, her articulation of Pakistani government’s position on relations with India was crafted deftly, including her playful nudging of Mr Krishna when he could not decide whether minimum action on 26/11 Mumbai massacre was or not a condition precedent to the Pakistan sojourn of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Both ministers resorted to hackneyed philosophising on traps of history or new mental prisms or simply the two-to-tango invocation. Whilst some good emerged from the visit, including a long overdue rationalisation of the visa regime and a tweaking of the cross-LoC trade and transit rules, fundamental truth stares the two sides in the face.
The first was highlighted by the US notifying of the Haqqani group as a terrorist organisation, pursuant to an August 11 law passed by the US Congress, as the India-Pakistan talks commenced in Islamabad. Pakistan, the US implied, is reluctant to act against terrorist groups that are perceived useful to its national security objectives.
Ms Khar’s plea to transcend the past and for non-emotional tackling of the 26/11 issue and her omission of any reference to it in her opening statement at the joint press conference underscored Pakistani duplicity on terror. Dr Singh on his Tehran trip seemed to link his Pakistan visit to concrete action by Pakistan on persecuting the perpetrators of the Mumbai carnage.
Undoubtedly both sides in Tehran and now in Islamabad did discuss this last major hurdle. They have not yet found a solution that the Pakistani government can deliver and the Indian government can live with.
The Indian state has failed to insulate the dialogue progress from acts of terror, particularly those traced to Pakistan. It dogged the NDA in 1999 (Kargil War) and 2001 (attack on Parliament) and then the UPA in 2006 (Mumbai train bombings) and 2008 (26/11). Dr Singh’s attempt to escape it at Sharm el-Sheikh in 2009, in a joint statement delinking Pakistani action on terror from talks with India, failed miserably.
The dilemma for Mr Krishna was how to avoid a public spat on the issue, like the one with the then Pakistani foreign minister, Shah M. Qureshi, two years ago in Islamabad. Ms Khar finessed him with wit and eloquence.
The second issue is the nature of the dialogue itself, christened in 1997 as the “composite dialogue”, indicating that all eight-odd subjects would be dealt with simultaneously. This overcame Pakistani concern that their core issues were not sidelined, i.e. Jammu and Kashmir. Traditionally, before intractable disputes are tackled the focus remains on confidence-building steps like people-to-people contacts and trade. Pakistan instead held all parts of bilateral relations hostage to the addressing of the main dispute. The simultaneous scheme, in addition, got undermined by terrorist acts that escalated in proportion to the frustration of the hardliners in Pakistan at tardy progress on issues like Siachen and Kashmir.
The Zardari government seemed to abandon the old mindset and welcome a calibrated approach that recognised that the more difficult issues could be resolved in a different time-frame from the people-centred themes. This seemed to build on the back-channel initiatives developed during the presidency of President Musharraf. The 26/11 attacks and the slow revelation of the planning that went into it, including the confessions of David Headley and now those of Abu Jundal as indeed the judicial progress of the Kasab case have kept the wounds fresh. This has upset the time-tables that the representatives of the two governments had been carefully planning for a synchronised resetting of national positions on disputes real and imaginary. Both governments ignored that their political mandates were slipping from under them as they grappled with historical faultlines. The Pakistani government cannot uproot the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba; the Indian Prime Minister cannot deliver upfront on a withdrawal from Siachen, a minimum that the Pakistani military would demand to let the civilian government ease people-to-people links and freer trade. A stalemate lingers!
The September 8 joint statement is replete with good intents masquerading as diplomacy, besides a little bit of fudging. The assertion that ceasefire has held since 2003 is negated by periodic firing across the LoC over the last two months and the tunnel which could not have been dug without Pakistani official connivance. The Joint Commission’s ambitious ambit stretches across eight subjects like agriculture, science and technology, environment, information technology and telecommunication, health etc. This assumes that Pakistan is a normal state. It could have been delimited to water management, agriculture and environment. How do you share technology with a nation multiplying its nuclear arsenal, uploading material for cyber terrorism and slipping in education and tolerance? Similarly, the nine issues derived from the composite dialogue, a mix of confidence-generating matters and disputes, need updating. Water and Afghanistan loom in urgency and on both dialogue must commence.
Pakistan is an aberrant state, patronised in the past by the US, China and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The new “mitigating” policy of the US is to ensure safety of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, support its civilian government and ensure the elimination of Al Qaeda and its associates. India shares all three objectives. China has so far denied fiscal support to Pakistan but is still unwilling to distance itself from it. Saudi Arabia is also reassessing its relations with India-Pakistan. This is not the time for grand bargains. India should stick to simple objectives. Economic relations and trade should precede dispute resolution, which must come as a reward for good conduct and not price for blackmail.

The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry

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