“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where—” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“—so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”
That is the exchange between Alice and the Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and it aptly captures Wednesday’s sudden move by the BJP government to resume the Composite Dialogue with Pakistan. In fact, the Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue, as it has been christened now, includes all issues of the Composite Dialogue, plus counter-terrorism, humanitarian issues and religious tourism. The two National Security Advisors will meet separately to discuss terror related issues, which unlike counter-terrorism, seems to be outside of the Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue.
Composite Dialogue first started in 1997 when PM Inder Kumar Gujral and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif agreed for a structured framework talks between the two countries. The dialogue was disrupted after the 1998 nuclear tests, but resumed following the famous Lahore Declaration of 1998 when PM Atal Behari Vajpayee travelled to Lahore on a bus.
The Composite Dialogue was disrupted due to the Kargil War of 1999, and resumed during the fag end of Vajpayee’s tenure in January 2004. It continued under PM Manmohan Singh when it was shelved after the Mumbai terror attacks in November 2008. The talks, rechristened as the Resumed Dialogue, were back on track in 2011 but were halted again in 2012 after the beheading of Indian soldiers on the Line of Control.
During his election campaign in 2013 and 2014, PM Narendra Modi was very vocal about a strong and muscular policy towards Pakistan. His invite to PM Nawaz Sharif for the BJP government’s swearing in ceremony in May 2014 surprised most observers. But those hopes were belied when the process kept getting stalled over Pakistani insistence on meeting Hurriyat leaders, which led to cancellation of talks.
The Ufa declaration in July, on the sidelines of the SCO summit, laid out a roadmap but it was interpreted differently by the two countries. India insisted that talks would be sequenced and limited to discussing terror between the two NSAs, LoC between the two DGMOs and so on. The NSA-level talks in Delhi in August were thus shelved when Indians were not willing to allow the Pakistani NSA to meet Hurriyat leaders.
The Indian foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, in a widely appreciated press conference, explained the Modi government’s policy towards Pakistan being dictated by the Ufa Declaration, with no third party interference or meeting in a third country being acceptable to Delhi. But in November, the two NSAs, away from media glare and without any announcement, met in Bangkok for a four-hour meeting. This had been preceded by a very short chat between PM Modi and PM Sharif in Paris on the sidelines of COP 21 summit.
Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj is expected to make a statement on her Pakistan visit and the government’s Pakistan policy in Parliament on Thursday. That will perhaps explain the distance traversed by the government on Pakistan in the last 18 months, and lay out a roadmap for the future. So far, it has been hard to understand — or to use Lewis Caroll immortal phrase, “Curiouser and curiouser!” — how a new government which promised to boldly move forward in May 2014 has actually landed up back at November 2008.