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Balancing act in Thimphu

Indo-Pak talks will draw all Saarc attention: that itself is a challenge....

Written by C. Raja Mohan |
April 28, 2010 2:15:26 am

That Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is meeting with Pakistan Premier Yousaf Raza Gilani in Thimphu,Bhutan on the margins of the South Asian summit has not come as a surprise. Nor is it difficult to predict that the excessive media focus on the India-Pakistan encounter will overshadow the silver jubilee of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation.

Here then is the paradox that Dr Singh faces in Thimphu. The talks between Dr Singh and Gilani are unlikely to end the current structural crisis in Indo-Pak relations,but they will draw all the public attention. And few will be interested in the many positives that India can accomplish in Thimphu with other South Asian neighbours,both bilaterally and regionally.

The prime minister’s task in Thimphu then is twofold. The first is to persist with India’s Sisyphean effort to engage Pakistan. The other is to use the Bhutan summit to deepen ties with the smaller neighbours and craft a vision for the subcontinent that can survive a prolonged uncertainty and tension in ties with Pakistan.

Whether we should talk to Pakistan or not is probably the wrong question that India debates interminably. Delhi stops talking,or “suspends” the dialogue,whenever there is a major terrorist incident and after a brief period of anger discovers that it has no option but to sit down with Islamabad. India then begins a tortuous negotiation with itself on when and how to resume talks with Pakistan.

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As he re-engages Pakistan,the real question before Dr Singh is whether the leadership next door,both civilian and military,is either willing or capable of delivering on what matters most to India.

The troubling but unavoidable reality is that Pakistan has walked away from the terms of a peace process and its principal outcome that showed so much promise during 2004-07.

That process rested on three core understandings that were hammered out in January 2004 by then-Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and then-President Pervez Musharraf. One,Pakistan would create a violence-free atmosphere; two,India would negotiate purposefully on the Kashmir dispute; and three,the two sides would expand bilateral cooperation on a range of issues.

Barring occasional spikes in cross-border violence,Musharraf certainly delivered on the promise to curb anti-India terror groups based in Pakistan. As the baton passed on from Vajpayee to Dr Singh in Delhi mid-2004,India embarked on an intensive negotiation on resolving the Kashmir question. The period 2004-07 also saw the dramatic expansion of trade,people-to-people contact and a range of other confidence-building measures between the two countries.

Musharraf’s successors — in the army and on the civilian side — have refused to reaffirm the core commitment on preventing the use of Pakistani territory for terror activities against India. After 26/11 and a series of attacks on Indian targets in Afghanistan since mid-2008,India has asked for but has not got a restatement of the January 2004 commitments. Gilani is unlikely to offer them in Thimphu.

Even more disconcerting for India has been the reluctance of General Ashfaq Kayani and the civilian government in Pakistan to confirm that they abide by the framework agreement on Kashmir that was negotiated during 2004-07.

There is no escaping these facts. While Dr Singh is willing to risk considerable domestic criticism to resume the peace project with Pakistan,it is by no means clear if there is a reliable interlocutor across the table.

None of the major powers,including the US,who urge Delhi to resume negotiations with Islamabad and write big fat cheques to the Pakistan army are prepared to vouch for a possible change in Rawalpindi’s behaviour even if India accepts all its current political demands.

Since the authority of Musharraf started waning in 2007,it is quite clear that there is no credible power centre in Pakistan that can or will negotiate with India on Kashmir and cross-border terrorism.

The problem,however,may be larger than the current fluidity in Pakistan’s civil-military relations. It is,in fact,about the nature of the Pakistani state,or what passes for it.

That Pakistan does not play by the normal rules either towards its own people or other states is not in doubt. What worries Delhi’s decision-makers is the possibility that the feudal and praetorian structures across our western border may not want to or simply cannot negotiate on a rational basis with India.

Put simply,is Pakistan a country or a grievance? States negotiate with others on the basis of an enlightened self-interest and are open to give and take. But revanchists consumed by real and imagined grievances find it hard to split the difference in a negotiation.

Dr Singh is surely troubled by the fact that the current leadership of the Pakistan army has simply walked away from the historic negotiations he conducted with Musharraf during 2004-07,and for no visible gain. This does not imply India should stop engaging Pakistan.

On the contrary,India must take every opportunity to talk to the Pakistani leaders,especially the civilians,and convey Indian concerns about the obstacles to the peace process and the hopes for a genuine reconciliation with Pakistan. Avoiding an engagement will only make matters worse.

Like his two predecessors,Vajpayee and Inder Kumar Gujral,Dr Singh is condemned to a ceaseless search for a way out of the bitter legacy of Partition. This outreach to Pakistan and the different elements that constitute it must necessarily be tempered by the recognition that we might be in for a very prolonged and bitter phase in bilateral relations.

Meanwhile,Dr Singh must find a way to channel at least a small fraction of the diplomatic energy we devote to Pakistan towards the rest of the subcontinent. Any Indian strategy to contain the sources of extremism and violence in Pakistan must necessarily focus on promoting regional prosperity through economic integration with our other neighbours. That will need determined Indian steps,including unilateral ones,and not merely words.

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