Delhi, hold your peace

“War is like love”, wrote the German dramatist Bertolt Brecht, “it always finds a way”. Peace, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to work like that. Indeed, the construction of a durable peace requires more strategic planning, operational agility, and plain good luck than victory in war. The recent foreign ministerial talks between India and Pakistan underscore the importance of right timing as well as appropriate tactics in any effort at peacemaking. The need to engage Pakistan is self-evident. The alternatives — a more activist military posture or efforts at diplomatic isolation — have proved either fraught with avoidable risks or difficult to orchestrate. But peaceniks who favour all-out engagement would do well to remember that few things short of war can be as damaging to relations between states as a failed peace process.
In tackling a set of outstanding disputes, states tend to approach the negotiations in one of two ways. The incremental approach is premised on the idea that addressing the easier issues first would help the parties understand each other’s perspectives and gain confidence as they realised that deals could be struck and, more importantly, made to work. They could gradually move on to the more difficult issues, until the point where they would realise that they were effectively “at peace”. This approach is considered particularly useful in overcoming the endemic problem of commitment: how can I trust you to stick to any agreement that we might reach? Success depends on the impetus given by the gathering momentum to work through a set of progressively more difficult issues. Else, the process judders to a halt.
The comprehensive approach, by contrast, rests on the belief that interim steps that leave the deep, underlying dispute untouched are unlikely to produce satisfactory outcomes. Rather, the trade-offs necessary for a final agreement should be arranged through one grand set of inter-connected bargains. The problem with this approach is its “all or nothing” quality. If negotiations collapsed, there would be nothing to show for the effort. Worse, it would lead to even higher levels of distrust and a discredited peace process.
An excellent case in point is the Camp David Summit convened by Bill Clinton for a comprehensive peace package for the Israel-Palestine dispute. The failure of the summit generated vigorous controversy over who bore how much blame: Did Yasser Arafat turn down an unprecedented offer from the Israelis? Or was it Ehud Barak who missed a wonderful opportunity? The contending narratives of the Camp David Summit so poisoned the atmosphere that when a fresh Palestinian uprising broke, the Israelis responded in a manner that laid to rest the “peace-process”.
The comprehensive approach was adopted by India in the negotiations after the 1971 war. Pakistan, however, proved unwilling to make good on the central bargain pertaining to the status of Jammu and Kashmir. In fact, years later when the P.N. Dhar provided an insider’s account of the Indian perspective of this bargain, there were heated rebuttals from Pakistan. By the late 1970s, New Delhi was well aware of the problems inherent in seeking a comprehensive solution of disputes with Pakistan. In consequence, it adopted an incremental approach from the mid-1980s. The focus was now on tackling issues such as Siachen which seemed susceptible of resolution and building confidence between the two sides.
However, the onset of the insurgency in Kashmir proved to be the major stumbling block. The “composite dialogue” begun in 2004 was yet another attempt at a comprehensive engagement. The dialogue stood on an assurance from Pakistan that it would cease to abet terrorist outfits operating from its territory. Unsurprisingly, after the Mumbai attacks, New Delhi has been unwilling to revert to the composite dialogue, and has sought to attempt an incremental approach. Pakistan’s insistence on a time-bound resumption of the composite format has resulted in the current impasse.
Peaceniks should realise that all-out engagement has little chance to succeed when India remains deeply wary of the complicity between elements of the Pakistani state and terrorist outfits. Unless Pakistan is ready to respond to India’s baseline requirements on terrorism, increased acrimony is the most likely outcome. Contrary to some claims, an incremental approach does not hand a veto to terrorists, but rather creates the capacity to absorb the shock of a potential attack. Furthermore, it is arrogant to suggest that the government should not take into account public opinion. Successful political leaders have always seen public opinion as a useful filter of policy choices. If it is not possible to lead public opinion by making a good case, then it might be because it is a bad policy. New Delhi’s decision to focus the dialogue on terrorism and other low-hanging fruit like Sir Creek seems sensible.
Apart from tactics there is the question of timing. Comprehensive negotiations tend to succeed only when the parties are aware of how bad things might get if they fail to end the conflict and are hence prepared to bite the bullet. On this count, the situation in Pakistan is rather unpromising. For one thing, the military continues to believe that it can adopt a differentiated approach in dealing with terrorism, going after groups that threaten the Pakistani state whilst giving a free pass to those focused on Afghanistan and India. The dangers lurking in such an approach are yet to be registered. For another, the military brass thinks that Pakistan’s position will get strengthened with the passage of time. As the Americans look for a way out of Afghanistan, they believe, Washington is bound to seek assistance from them for a negotiated settlement with the insurgents. This will hand Pakistan additional leverages vis-à-vis India as well.
All of this poses tricky challenges for New Delhi. As a status quo power that is dissatisfied with certain aspects of the status quo, India has always placed a premium on patience in seeking change. In contemplating negotiations in such unpropitious circumstances, it would also help to recall Talleyrand’s dictum: Above all, no excessive zeal.

n Srinath Raghavan is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

Comments

Really sensible article.

Really sensible article.

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