Saturday, June 26, 2010

Bilateral Relations: India-Pakistan, a well choreographed beginning

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The visit of Mrs.Nirupama Rao, India's Foreign Secretary, to Islamabad on June 24,2010, for preparatory talks with Mr.Salman Bashir, Pakistani Foreign Secretary, could not have gone better than it did. Those, who had seen the bad vibrations which marred the atmosphere during Mr.Bashir's visit to New Delhi in February last for the first meeting with her, would have been taken by surprise by the good vibrations which were to the fore during her entire stay in Islamabad and her official discussions with the Pakistani Foreign Secretary and courtesy call on Shah Mahmood Qureshi, the Pakistani Foreign Minister.

2. During Mr.Bashir's visit to New Delhi in February, the two Foreign Secretaries could not even agree on a joint press conference. They held separate press conferences----Mrs.Rao in the Indian Foreign Office and Mr.Bashir in the Pakistani Chancery. They projected two different versions of what transpired during their discussions. Mrs.Rao's version was balanced and devoid of polemics. Mr. Bashir's was polemical. He was even sarcastic regarding India's concerns over terrorism and couldn't resist ridiculing India's case for action against Hafeez Mohammad Sayeed, the Amir of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JUD), the political wing of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET).He insisted on India accepting a so-called road map, which Pakistan had given for resuming the dialogue process. India saw no merit in the so-called road map.

3.Within four months, one saw on the TV the two Foreign Secretaries addressing a joint press conference and projecting cordial images of themselves----- persons of reason looking for ways of narrowing the divide between the two countries instead of aggravating it as was done in February. One could be certain that this change for the better would have been preceded by intense back channel discussions and informal interactions to prevent a repeat of what happened in February. A choreography as impressive as what one saw could not have been spontaneous or the product of the goodwill of the moment. It had been prepared beforehand.

4.Mrs.Rao's emphasis was still on terrorism----but terrorism in general, but not terrorism in specific emanating from territory under the control of Pakistan and used by the State of Pakistan against India in an attempt to force a change of the status quo in Jammu & Kashmir. When Mr.Atal Behari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister, the emphasis was not on any terrorism, but on terrorism of Pakistani origin emanating from territory under the control of Pakistan and sponsored by the State of Pakistan. This emphasis found mention in the formulation accepted by Gen.Pervez Musharraf during his talks with Mr.Vajpayee at Islamabad in January 2004.

5. Since taking over as the Prime Minister in 2004, Dr.Manmohan Singh had been veering away from this formulation, slowly but steadily and this process was taken one step further during the just-concluded meeting of the two Foreign Secretaries. Will India's apparent gesture to Pakistan, which spares Islamabad the dilemma of having to cut off the links of the State with the LET and other like-minded Punjabi Taliban organisations, help in India's 30-year fight against terrorism sponsored by the state of Pakistan---- initially in Punjab, then in J&K and subsequently in the rest of India?

6. Dr.Manmohan Singh seems to be hopeful and even confident that it will. If it does, one may see a turn for the better in the bilateral relations. If it does not, it will not only add to the prevailing public distrust of Pakistan, but could even discredit Dr.Manmohan Singh and embarrass his party.

7. There are two questions involved in matters relating to terrorism. Should India continue to link the question of a resumption of the dialogue to Pakistan satisfying Indian expectations even before the talks begin? Our past policy of linkage, justified till now, has started yielding diminishing returns with no fresh ideas coming up. One can, therefore, justify the delinking of the terrorism issue from the question of a resumption of the dialogue. But Dr.Manmohan Singh has gone one step further by delinking the terrorism issue from the issue of the Pakistani sponsorship of it and from the progress on the ground during the process of the dialogue. What we have agreed to is a "comprehensive, sustained and substantial dialogue" irrespective of the progress on the question of Pakistani action in discarding terrorism.

8. Mr.Bashir's emphasis was strill on the dialogue process in general and the Kashmir issue in particular. He seemed inclined to give up expressions such as "a comprehensive dialogue", a "road-map" etc with which India seemed to be uncomfortable. Pakistan is still determined to achieve its objectives ( terrorism plus more river waters) relating to J&K -----through talks if possible and through terrorism, if necessary.

9. We have to keep the dialogue going. We have to continue the exercise for reducing distrust. At the same time, we have to ensure that our national interests are not jeopardised as a result of unwarranted concessions to Pakistan The talks can create an enduring partnership between the two countries only if they lead to a total Pakistani break with the use of terrorism as a State weapon and with a change in Pakistani focus from territory-related issues to questions having a bearing on the mutual economic and other interests of the people of the two countries.

10. How to conduct the dialogue in such a manner as to promote these objectives? That is the question which needs to be examined lucidly before our Foreign Minister goes to Islamabad on July 15 to meet his Pakistani counterpart in the next stage of the dialogue process. Mr.P.Chidambaram, our Home Minister, who arrived in Islamabad on June 25 for the SAARC Home Ministers’ meeting and bilateral discussions with Mr.Rehman Malik, the Pakistani Interior Minister, has kept a laser sharp focus on the terrorism issue even while welcoming the dialogue process. (26-6-10)

The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies.