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Talking to Pakistan: Four Lessons

As New Delhi grapples,once again,with the question on when and whether to talk to Islamabad,here are four lessons that stand out from the recent history of Indo-Pak diplomacy.

Written by C. Raja Mohan | New Delhi |
June 7, 2009 4:33:37 pm

As New Delhi grapples,once again,with the question on when and whether to talk to Islamabad,here are four lessons that stand out from the recent history of Indo-Pak diplomacy.

The first lesson is that the Prime Minister of India must rely on his own instinct rather than the assessments of either the bureaucracy or his Cabinet colleagues. To generate progress with Pakistan,the PM must be prepared to defy the conventional wisdom within his own government. Dr. Manmohan Singh and his predecessor Atal Bihari Vajpayee would testify that breaking or making talks with Pakistan has been the prime ministerial prerogative and based solely on the leader’s judgement of the national mood and the opportunities across the border.

The second lesson is that the formal mechanism for engaging Pakistan may be necessary but not sufficient to move forward. The so-called composite dialogue between India and Pakistan has produced many useful outcomes in the last few years,but has been difficult to sustain. It has been accident prone and an easy target for the opponents of the peace process in both countries. Every time there is a major terrorist attack on India,it has somehow become New Delhi’s political burden to decide whether to continue the dialogue or not. The only way out is to reduce the salience of the official negotiations.

The third lesson is that India can’t talk Pakistan out of supporting anti-India terrorist organisations. The composite dialogue for example was premised on a simple bargain. Pakistan would create a violence free atmosphere and India would negotiate purposefully on Kashmir. This bargain held for a couple of years during 2005-07,but has collapsed since. The only way India can stop terror from across the border is to become a little more unpredictable and make it costly for the Pakistan Army to support violent extremism against India.

The fourth lesson is to stop treating Pakistan as a coherent whole. The many institutions and political formations across the border have different views on the peace process with India. By making talks conditional and limiting them to one formal channel,New Delhi has given its irreconcilable adversaries across the border a veto over Pakistan’s India policy.

Instead of being perpetually torn by the question whether we should engage Islamabad or not,India must maintain open contact with all the potential partners across Pakistan. For example,there is nothing preventing New Delhi from inviting the leaders of the various Pakistani political parties to visit India for a conversation even as we debate the resumption of the formal dialogue with Islamabad. India must also consider the possibility of de-linking the talks between the national governments Delhi and Islamabad from the prospects for cross-border cooperation between different provinces. Why not let Chandigarh and Lahore talk to each other and Mumbai and Karachi connect up even as New Delhi and Islamabad make up their minds?

(C. Raja Mohan is a Professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of

International Studies,Nanyang Technological University,Singapore.)

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