It says something about the secrecy maintained over the India-Pakistan National Security Advisers-cum-Foreign Secretary-level talks that the Indian and Pakistani journalists who attended a ‘track 2’ conference in Bangkok a day before did not get even a whiff of what was about to unfold in the same city.
This is good news. The media on the two sides are so polarised that at times they have seemed more hawkish than the most extreme opinions in either country. Scared politicians, in India more than in Pakistan, have succumbed to the pressure of belligerent media. From Sharm-al Shaikh 2009 to Ufa 2015, if there was one message, it was that New Delhi and Islamabad can begin talking in any meaningful way only away from the glare of the media. Otherwise the talks are bound to become point scoring matches in order to play to domestic nationalist galleries. India-Pakistan relations are too important to be left to the journalists of the two countries.
The pressure to begin talks has been enormous in recent months. Aside from the not so gentle nudges from the US, for India, the freeze on talks would have started telling on other matters – in 2016, Islamabad hosts the SAARC summit, and it is imperative that Prime Minister Narendra Modi should attend it, especially given that he kicked off his prime ministership with an outreach to the region. The summit gets postponed if even one leader does not attend, and not breaking the ice with Pakistan could have led to that pass, earning India even more black marks to the already bad report card in the region.
It would have also meant India denying itself its due role in the fast-evolving situation in Afghanistan.
For Pakistan, part of the reason it was not keen on the NSA-level talks was that it did not see Sartaj Aziz, the former NSA and de facto foreign minister, as an equal of the Indian NSA Ajit Doval. After the Pakistan Army put in its own man, Lt. Gen Nasir Janjua, it felt more comfortable going ahead with the NSA talks. This means that India can now deal directly with the Pakistan Army, something that Pakistan’s most powerful institution has wanted, and conveyed to New Delhi, directly and indirectly since 2008.
The thaw achieved in Bangkok, away from a wintry New Delhi and Islamabad, means Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj can travel to Islamabad this week for the Heart of Asia conference on Afghanistan. The others at the table will include Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi, and representatives from Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, and the UAE, aside from host Pakistan.
Although it is a ministerial-level conference, there is a chance that President Ashraf Ghani might attend. For India, not going to this would have been akin to an abdication. Swaraj is also to meet Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Pakistan Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz on the sidelines of the conference.
There can be no diplomacy anywhere without some give and some take. From the identical press releases the two sides put out after the meeting, at which the foreign secretaries are likely to have conferred separately, it was clear that India climbed down a notch or two from its Ufa position that the talks between the two sides can only be about terrorism. The discussions covered “peace and security, terrorism, Jammu and Kashmir, and other issues, including tranquility along LoC”. When Swaraj and Aziz meet, they may review the progress that was achieved under the composite dialogue and announce the next steps in the process.
This it won’t be easy. India and Pakistan have had too many false starts. We have been at this pass before and seen it come to an end all too soon. The diplomatic history of the two countries reads like an essay on lost opportunities.
Former foreign secretary Nirupama Rao who was witness to some of those, put out the following cautionary words on her Facebook wall today:
“Now that news of the two NSAs (India and Pakistan) meeting in Bangkok has “broken” (all news in our region is breaking – how cliched it sounds) everybody is going into the same paroxysms of ecstasy about a parting of waters as it were. Nothing in Indo-Pak relations is allowed to mature to fullness – hardly have some green shoots shown and they are mowed down with unseemly emotional hysteria and enthusiasm. We must understand that in relations between our two countries the going is never easy and just that we shake hands in a foreign land or conduct diplomacy on a stray sofa does not mean that problems are going to be somehow solved. The emphasis must be on keeping the channels of dialogue open and patience of the biblical variety together with intelligent vigilance and astute assessment of our adversary’s moves. We need to grow up.”