The recent decision to resume a comprehensive bilateral dialogue with our “belligerent” neighbor was not as spontaneous as it was made out to be. It was a carefully choreographed and calibrated move.
By Ramesh Ramachandran
Was the recent decision to resume a comprehensive bilateral dialogue between India and Pakistan a sudden and dramatic step as the government would have us believe? While any resumption of talks must be welcomed, it must be seen as a well-thought-out move and not as a spontaneous flow of diplomatic emotions.
Here are the facts. On December 9, India and Pakistan jointly issued a statement saying that they had “agreed to a Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue and directed the foreign secretaries to work out the modalities and schedule of the meetings”. Peace talks were first suspended in the aftermath of the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai and a second time in 2013 after the beheading of an Indian soldier following tensions along the border. The December 9 decision was agreed upon at a meeting between Union External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s foreign affairs adviser Sartaj Aziz in Islamabad.
The joint statement read that both Swaraj and Aziz “condemned terrorism and resolved to cooperate to eliminate it. They noted the successful talks on terrorism and security related issues in Bangkok by the two national security advisers (NSA) and decided that the NSAs will continue to address all issues connected to terrorism. The Indian side was assured of the steps being taken to expedite the early conclusion of the Mumbai trial.”
“Both sides,” it continued, “accordingly, agreed to a Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue and directed the foreign secretaries to work out the modalities and schedule of the meetings under the Dialogue including peace and security, CBMs (Confidence Building Measures), Jammu and Kashmir, Siachen, Sir Creek, Wullar Barrage/Tulbul Navigation Project, economic and commercial cooperation, counter-terrorism, narcotics control, humanitarian issues, people to people exchanges and religious tourism.”
How the announcement came about was supposedly dramatic. If the official Indian narrative is to be believed, all it took was a two-odd-minute meeting between Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif in Paris on November 30 to break the ice. And in less than a week, both countries sprung a surprise on their unsuspecting peoples by letting it be known that NSA AK Doval and his Pakistan counterpart Lt Gen Nasser Khan Janjua (Retd) had met in Bangkok. A joint press release issued on December 6 said that the two NSAs, accompanied by their foreign secretaries, had concluded discussions which “covered peace and security, terrorism, Jammu and Kashmir, and other issues, including tranquility along the LoC (Line of Control).”
That neither government acknowledged that the move was choreographed in detail and the meetings were carefully planned after high-level deliberations was diplomatic secrecy at work. They were indeed not chance encounters. A lot of back-channel negotiations had taken place (with a little help from the US and some European powers) before calibrated steps towards resuming the stalled peace talks were taken. That the series of meetings followed a script is all the more remarkable because the public discourse in both countries had begun degenerating into mutual recriminations within months of Modi’s invitation to Sharif for the former’s swearing in as PM on May 22, 2014.
An appreciation of the outcome of the Ufa talks in July this year is the key to understanding the evolution of Modi’s Pakistan policy in general and the December 6 meeting between the NSAs and the December 9 decision to resume bilateral peace talks, in particular. The joint statement issued at Ufa committed India and Pakistan to a meeting in New Delhi between the two NSAs to discuss all issues connected to terrorism, among others. Equally significant was Sharif’s reiteration of his invitation to Modi to visit Pakistan for the SAARC summit in 2016. It was subsequently decided that the NSAs —Aziz and Doval—would meet in New Delhi on August 23. However, India’s insistence that the talks would be confined to terrorism and that Aziz was not welcome to meet the Kashmiri separatists led to the cancellation of the talks.
Here the subtext becomes important. One reason why the Aziz-Doval talks failed to materialize was the protocol mismatch between Aziz, who enjoys a cabinet minister’s rank, and Doval, who started out as a secretary-rank official but has since been elevated to the rank of a minister of state like his immediate predecessors. While Aziz had the mandate to discuss political issues such as Jammu and Kashmir, Modi felt that Doval, by virtue of having been a career intelligence officer with an enviable reputation, was ideally suited to discuss counter-terrorism. Two months later, on October 22, Pakistan announced the appointment of Lt Gen Naseer Khan Janjua (Retd) as the national security adviser “with the status of minister of state” (on a par with Doval) who will be “based at the prime minister’s secretariat” (like Doval who functions from the PMO).
With this asymmetry out of the way, India and Pakistan came good on their Ufa commitment of holding a meeting between the two NSAs to discuss all issues connected to terrorism when Doval and Janjua met in Bangkok. Their meeting marked a departure from the previous practice of mandating the home secretary of India and the interior secretary of Pakistan to discuss terrorism. Now, not only have the talks about “all issues connected to terrorism” been elevated to the level of the NSA (minister of state) but New Delhi could open a line of communication with the military establishment and by extension its chief of army staff, currently held by the Pakistan prime minister’s namesake General Raheel Sharif.
A new architecture of the India-Pakistan talks, rechristened as Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue, as opposed to the earlier labels of Resumed Dialogue (2011 to 2013) or Composite Dialogue (1997 to 2008), was slowly emerging. India and Pakistan could be expected to hold parallel or simultaneous talks, one between the NSAs (the Pakistani military establishment will be on its board) about terrorism and the other between their respective foreign ministers or diplomats.
While the semantically different Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue will retain the flavour of its previous avatars (What’s in a name, you might wonder? A lot, if India and Pakistan are in question), what Modi and Sharif have done is to unbundle the eight subjects under the erstwhile Composite Dialogue and bring some more issues under the ambit of the bilateral talks. So in addition to the twin pillars of peace and security including CBMs and Jammu and Kashmir, terrorism and drug trafficking, commercial and economic cooperation and promotion of friendly exchanges will now be discussed. Humanitarian issues, people-to-people exchanges programmes and religious tourism have also been included in the ambit.
While it indicates that the two countries have reached a modus vivendi, it is not clear whether under the new terms of engagement Pakistani interlocutors would be welcome to hold talks with the Hurriyat as before. (Pakistan High Commissioner to New Delhi Abdul Basit says, “there is no change in our policy towards them.”) It is also not clear whether the leaders of India and Pakistan will meet in each other’s countries or will go back to the old pattern of meeting in neutral venues.
For its part, India maintains that implicit in the December 9 joint statement is that the talks are being resumed on the basis of Pakistan’s assurance that steps are being taken to expedite the early conclusion of the Mumbai trial. At the same time, it cannot be said with any degree of certainty that the latest round of talks would survive another 26/11. India is proceeding on the assumption that with Rawalpindi becoming a stakeholder in the NSA-level talks, the Pakistani army and its affiliates would tread that much more cautiously.
While Mani Shankar Aiyar of the Congress party reiterates his oft-quoted position of “uninterrupted and uninterruptible dialogue”, some such as Rajesh Rajagopalan take a nuanced position. The professor of international politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University believes that although the resumption of talks are only to be welcomed but one would do well not to expect much by way of outcomes, particularly a halt to the terrorism emanating from Pakistan. Rajagopalan maintains that India should seek to develop its military options to counter terrorism.
Rajagopalan’s formulation echoes that of some others in the Indian strategic community who insist that India ought to develop an effective asymmetric defence doctrine and impose costs on Pakistan for sponsoring terrorism directed at India.
It is not clear whether under the new terms of engagement Pakistani interlocutors would be welcome to hold talks with the Hurriyat as before.
Modi would become the first Indian prime minister after Vajpayee in 2004 to visit Pakistan for the 2016 SAARC summit. Although Sushma Swaraj told parliament that the peace talks have been resumed with the modest objectives of exploring cooperative ties and promoting better understanding and mutual trust, it could offer Modi an opportunity to pick up the threads from where Manmohan and Vajpayee had left them. As former Pakistan foreign minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri told this writer last year during a visit to New Delhi, India and Pakistan had come very close to an agreed framework on the Kashmir issue during the tenures of Manmohan Singh and Gen Pervez Musharraf . It remains to be seen whether Modi is able and willing to get the backing of the BJP and the RSS to forge the broadest possible consensus on reconciliation with Pakistan. For Sharif, the challenge would be not to squander the handsome mandate that swept Modi to power. But the question is: Will Pakistan play ball?