Dr Maleeha Lodhi
The writer is a former envoy to the US and the UK, and a former editor of The News
India's offer to restart foreign secretary-level talks with Pakistan holds out the prospect of an end to the protracted diplomatic standoff between the two countries. But the immediate challenge is to find a way to reconcile clashing visions of how the dialogue should be pursued.
The shift in Delhi's yearlong no-talks posture has set the stage for renewed bilateral engagement. Whether this will be a step towards a return to the structured peace process that Pakistan advocates is an open question. Launched in 2004, the broad-based talks that go by the name of composite dialogue were suspended by Delhi in November 2008 in the wake of the Mumbai terrorist attack.
Two weeks ago, Indian foreign secretary Nirupuma Rao telephoned her Pakistani counterpart, Salman Bashir, to invite him for talks to Delhi, without, however, indicating the scope of the proposed parleys. Islamabad welcomed the talks offer but sought clarification about the terms of the engagement. This has since led to a flurry of diplomatic activity aimed at reaching an agreement over the timing and agenda for the meeting.
The change in India's no-dialogue stance comes after 14 tense months which saw the peace process frozen and increased belligerence in Indian statements. While Indian generals enunciated provocative new military doctrines and its army conducted "cold start" exercises on the border, its politicians frequently alluded to military action against Pakistan if another Mumbai-like attack was to occur. The utterances of Indian army chief Gen Deepak Kapoor in December in fact prompted a forceful response from Pakistan's chief of the army staff, Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.
Recent weeks also saw a heightening of border tensions with incidents of violation of the working boundary in the Lahore and Sialkot sectors, as well as a reported rise in firing incidents across the Line of Control. Meanwhile, Pakistan's repeated efforts to revive the bilateral dialogue were rebuffed by Delhi, which set preconditions for any resumption.
Against this backdrop the reversal in India's won't-talk position raises a number of questions. How much of this represents a real change of heart and how much is optics aimed at the international community? Is the shift tactical or substantive? Can the diplomatic space that has opened still be used to enlarge the dialogue process even if it is narrowly focused at the outset?
To answer these questions it would be useful to consider three sets of factors that may lie behind the shift in India's diplomatic posture. The first relates to the limits or failure of coercive diplomacy. In 2001-02 India had to reverse course after nearly a yearlong exercise in coercive diplomacy which followed a terrorist attack on the Indian parliament. This time too, Delhi may have calculated that persisting with a similar approach (minus the military mobilisation but using other forms of intimidation) would not yield the concessions sought from Pakistan. Instead, this stance risked losing international sympathy and support as time wore on.
The studied cool with which Pakistan responded to Delhi's imposition of a freeze on diplomatic relations also meant that it was able to thwart the Indian effort to use bilateral dialogue as a reward or quid pro quo.
With the no-dialogue posture having run out of steam, Delhi may have decided to opt for "measured diplomatic contact," as some Indian officials put it, in an effort to reposition itself and extricate its policy from an unsustainable and self-defeating mode.
The second factor behind Delhi's more emollient stance on talks is the behind-the-scenes role played by Washington, concerned like much of the international community that India-Pakistan tensions could derail its strategy to stabilise Afghanistan. American officials have in recent months been vigorously pressing for an easing of tensions and renewal of dialogue so that Pakistan can focus on fighting militancy on its western border.
The January visit to the region by US defence secretary Robert Gates reinforced these efforts, even though they were overshadowed in Pakistan by the controversy triggered by his imprudent and gratuitous remarks about the limits of India's patience if another Mumbai occurred.
India's carefully calibrated "opening" to Pakistan may well be designed to defuse international pressure, especially at a time when Western officials see their Afghan project to have reached a critical juncture. American officials were quick to seize on the new development to stress that Washington had long been "encouraging such steps between India and Pakistan." The opposition BJP, on the other hand, accused the government of "abject surrender" for its policy U-turn.
The third factor relates to Delhi's growing worries over the signals emanating from fast-paced developments in Afghanistan, especially the prospect of accommodation with the Taliban that has emerged in the wake of the London Conference. The growing talk of Western exit strategies from Afghanistan has undoubtedly increased India's discomfiture with the changing regional scenario. Given the uncertainties unleashed by these developments and the possibility of Pakistan playing a central role in any Afghan endgame Delhi's offer to end the bilateral impasse may be a way to maintain diplomatic leverage in a shifting strategic landscape.
Be that as it may, the question raised by the impending thaw in India-Pakistan relations is whether agreement can be reached on a dialogue process that is able to reconcile the different priorities and concerns of the two sides. Pakistan has made it clear that it wants to see a return to the composite dialogue that was halted when the fifth round was underway in 2008.
But indications are that Delhi would prefer to keep a narrow focus and seek to recast the dialogue around the issue of terrorism. Unnamed official sources cited in the Indian media have said that Delhi is ready for talks on a range of issues, but not in the format of the composite process and with terrorism at the top of the agenda.
This might mean a protracted diplomatic dance as the two sides try to figure out a structure and agenda for sustained engagement. The resumption of any dialogue might be preferable to none, but then dialogue cannot be predicated around one side's agenda. Unilaterally imposed contacts and content will make the dialogue unproductive as well as unsustainable.
If "measured engagement" becomes a tactic to deflect attention from the real issues including Kashmir, then Islamabad will be obliged to calibrate its response accordingly. Already, Pakistani officials have signalled that they are not prepared to forego substance for process.
In the past year – including during the Sharm el Sheikh encounter – Indian officials questioned the utility of the composite dialogue and indicated that future talks would have to be configured around the issue of terrorism. Leaks in the Indian press in the past few days have echoed this view. But this notion of a selected and fragmented dialogue will not serve the objective of durable peace.
The broad-gauge structure of Pakistan-India diplomatic engagement drawn up in 1997 and sustained for twelve years, enabled multi-track and multilayered talks that covered the entire gamut of issues and disputes which reflected the two countries' differing agendas and priorities.
The process may not have yielded spectacular breakthroughs but it helped to create a web of multiple interactions between various ministries enabling the two countries to develop a better understanding of the other's view across a range of issues. Discarding this agreed framework for an ad hoc approach that suits only one side will prove to be unworkable.
Ultimately the fate of the future dialogue will depend on whether the two countries can address their divergences and identify and build on areas of convergence. The former will have to include Kashmir, nuclear-military issues and postures, and Afghanistan, while the latter could embrace trade, regional economic cooperation and common threats including terrorism.
What will determine stable relations is building a habit of dialogue and finding ways to overcome the deep mutual mistrust. Otherwise the ongoing efforts at re-engagement will turn out to be another false start rather than a new beginning.