Across the Aisle: To talk or not to talk

While war is not the answer, hard or coercive diplomacy with Pakistan could be.

Written by P Chidambaram | Updated: January 17, 2016 6:34 am
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Barely three weeks ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an unannounced visit to Lahore and agreed with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that the two countries will carry forward the agreement on Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue reached between the two countries. It was hailed as a brave move. Brave or not, it was an unusual, though impulsive, move and helped create an illusion of an atmosphere that would be conducive for talks. January 15 was set as the date for talks between the Foreign Secretaries.

Within seven days, the terrorists struck at a key frontline facility in India, the Pathankot Air Force base. In February 1999, Prime Minister Vajpayee visited Lahore and signed with Prime Minister Sharif the Lahore Declaration. Within three months of that visit, in May, the Kargil war began.

Structures within the state

Whoever planned it and whoever executed it, neither the Kargil war nor the Pathankot attack could have been conceived AFTER the visit of the Indian prime minister to Lahore. The Indian State is a single entity. There is a structure, there is a command and control and, barring minor aberrations, the State acts and can be commanded to act as a single entity. Pakistan is not. There are at least three structures within Pakistan that exercise ‘State’ power. There is the federal government of Pakistan, there is the Army, and there is the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). No one has control over all the three power structures. The Army and the ISI can — and often do — act independently.

At least these three structures are State entities deriving their authority and legitimacy from the written laws of the country. There are others who are, seemingly, beyond the pale of the law. We have coined a quaint phrase to describe them — non-state actors. The most virulent are the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and the Jaish-e-Muhammed (JeM). They exist in the open, own assets, recruit men and women, threaten jihad against India, proudly claim responsibility for terror attacks, and are seemingly immune from the laws of Pakistan.

This is the reality that India must take into account. A prime minister of India, enjoying full authority and responsibility as the true representative of India, cannot assume that the prime minister of Pakistan enjoys full authority and responsibility as the true representative of Pakistan. Prime Ministers of India, from Lal Bahadur Shastri to Indira Gandhi and Mr A B Vajpayee to Dr Manmohan Singh, have learned that truth to their bitter disappointment. Prime Minister Modi learned it in the months of December and January.

Coming to talks. ‘Should India talk to Pakistan?’ is the easy question. The answer is ‘yes, of course’. The real and difficult questions are who should India talk to, and on what, and when? Answers to these questions cannot be found during an impulsive drop-in at a pre-nuptial ceremony. Nor at a brief pull-aside conversation during a multilateral event. Mr Modi tried to do that, and the ignominious outcome was the terror attack on the Pathankot Air Force base.

Mumbai is not closed yet

The Mumbai terror attacks (26 to 29 November, 2008) were the worst terror attacks on Indian soil. It was conclusively proved that the ten terrorists were Pakistanis; they were trained, armed and despatched from Pakistan; their controllers were located in Pakistan; and the entire operation was guided from Pakistan.

As in every case, including the Kargil war, Pakistan denied that the terrorists were Pakistanis. World opinion forced Pakistan to conduct a perfunctory investigation, make some inconsequential arrests, and start a desultory and mock trial. Eight years later, not one person has been found guilty or punished.

Not counting the numerous intrusions and incidents along the LoC and the International Border, Pathankot is the first major terror attack after Mumbai where the source has been traced to Pakistan. Unusual for Pakistan, it has claimed to have started an investigation. The chances are it may go the same way as the so-called investigation into the Mumbai attack. Then what? In fact, it is a shame that no one in the government seems to remember that the earlier investigation and trial have reached a dead-end and have been comprehensively buried.

Talks on what, when?

There is no alternative to talks with Pakistan. So, by all means, let’s talk to Pakistan, but we should first talk on matters that are of immediate and grave concern to us — not respecting the LoC and the International Border, terrorism, intrusions, covert support to Indian jihadis etc. We can also talk on issues that will promote the economic interests of India such as trade, tourism and visits of academics and scholars. But, in my view, we must draw a red line: No talks for the present on Kashmir or Siachen or Sir Creek. Nothing will be lost if India maintains the status quo on those issues for some more time.

Pakistan is not a rogue state but it harbours and covertly supports rogue elements. While war is not the answer, hard or coercive diplomacy could be. India has been forced to defer the Foreign Secretary-level talks to an undetermined date. The time between now and that date must be used to re-examine all aspects of the talks — when, where and on what subjects. These are matters where we must assert our right to exercise our choice.

Website: pchidambaram.in @Pchidambaram_IN