Friday, July 16, 2010

India- Pakistan: An ill prepared meeting

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Mr.S.M.Krishna, India's Minister For External Affairs, and his Pakistani counterpart Mr. Shah Mehmood Qureshi, had discussions lasting about six hours at Islamabad on July 15, 2010. In between, Mr.Krishna called on President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani. Those , who were hoping that the meeting between the Foreign Ministers would be as free of acrimony as the meeting (June 25 and 26) between Mr.P.Chidambaram, our Home Minister, and Mr.Rehman Malik, Pakistan's Interior Minister, and the one (June 24) between the Foreign Secretaries of the two countries would have reasons to be disappointed. The acrimony, hardly concealed, was there for all to see on their TV as they watched the joint press conference addressed by the two Foreign Ministers at the end of their discussions and their interactions with their respective media thereafter.

2. The objective of the meeting as agreed to by Prime Minister Dr.Manmohan Singh and the Pakistani Prime Minister at their meeting at Thimpu in the margins of the SAARC summit ( April 28-29) was to create an atmosphere of trust between the two countries to facilitate the resumption of a formal dialogue on various pending issues. The proposed objective of the meeting as laid down by the two Prime Ministers was strategic, positive and forward-looking and not tactical and negative impeding a forward movement in bilateral relations.

3. One got the impression that instead the two Foreign Ministers had focussed totally on tactical issues without doing a brain-storming on various actions that could be taken to build trust. At the press conference, Mr.Krishna rightly emphasised that Pakistani action against the Pakistan-based conspirators of the 26/11 terrorist strike in Mumbai would be an important confidence-building measure. Mr.Qureshi, on his part, expressed the keenness of the Pakistani Government to implement the various confidence-building measures relating to Jammu & Kashmir, which had been agreed to by the previous Pakistani Governments in their interactions with the Govt. of India----such as promoting trade across the Line of Control.

4. He made a distinction between these confidence-building measures and measures of a political nature to settle the Kashmir dispute without disturbing the territorial status quo. Though he did not refer to Gen.Pervez Musharraf by name, it was evident he was referring to the measures of a political nature on which the two Governments had agreed through back-channel discussions when the General was in power. The present Pakistani Government had refused to honour agreements of a political nature agreed to by Gen.Musharraf during the back channel discussions. It was apparent from Mr.Qureshi's observations that his Government has remained firm on this refusal.

5. A forward-looking trust-building exercise should have focussed on many other issues of strategic interest such as the re-opening of the Indian Consulate in Karachi which was ordered to be closed down by Mrs.Benazir Bhutto when she was the Prime Minister in 1994, the opening of a Pakistani Consulate in Mumbai, which is a long-pending Pakistani request, increase in the number of journalists allowed to function from the two capitals, liaison arrangements between the intelligence and investigation agencies of the two countries, implementing measures for mutual legal assistance in the investigation and prosecution of crime, promotion of trade, removal of Pakistani restrictions on transit trade between India and Afghanistan, expansion of the contacts between the two Armies which are now restricted to the hot line between the Directors-General of Military Operations of the two countries and arrangements for a periodic dialogue between the Home/Interior Ministries of the two countries. If these measures are agreed to, this could have a cascading effect in building mutual trust.

6. From the press conference, one had an impression that none of these positive measures had been discussed in detail by the two Foreign Ministers. Instead the focus of the discussions seemed to have been largely on issues which have bedevilled the relations between the two countries. It was the realisation that the time is not yet ripe for tackling those issues that had made the two Prime Ministers agree upon an initial trust-building exercise as a starting block. Instead of initiating a process of trust-building, the meeting seems to have added to the existing wall of mistrust.

7. It was obvious that neither country had made proper preparations for the meeting. Since our Prime Minister reportedly attached considerable importance to this trust-building exercise,, one would have expected that before Mr.Krishna's visit to Islamabad he would have discussed a possible strategy for the meeting with the leaders of the opposition in order to evolve a political consensus and at a special meeting of the National Security Council (NSC) chaired by him to evolve an intere-departmental consensus on the strategy. It was evident that no such preparatory exercise for political and inter-departmental consensus-building in New Delhi before embarking on the trust-building exercise in Islamabad was undertaken.

8. Fortunately, there was no break-down at Islamabad. The Pakistani Foreign Minister is to visit to New Delhi next December to continue the discussions. In between, Dr.Manmohan Singh might meet Mr.Gilani again in New York in September if they decide to attend the inaugural session of the UN General Assembly. Before the September meeting, the Prime Minister should undertake a brain-storming with the opposition leaders and in the NSC on how to handle our relations with Pakistan----strategically as well as tactically. ( 16-7-10)

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.