IDSA COMMENT

Restructuring the Dialogue Process with Pakistan

July 15, 2010

Notwithstanding India’s expressed desire for a “serious, comprehensive and sustained dialogue” with Pakistan, there is deep scepticism over External Affairs minister S.M. Krishna’s visit to Islamabad to try and address the new ‘core issue’ – the yawning ‘trust deficit’ – bedevilling relations between India and Pakistan. Other than the visit restarting the process of a political engagement between the two countries, very little is being expected out of Mr. Krishna’s visit. In the India-Pakistan context, low expectations are not necessarily a bad thing, because not only does it avoid the almost destructive hype that inevitably surrounds any bilateral interaction, it allows both sides to claim success even without having achieved anything substantial.

There are two big problems that the resumed engagement with Pakistan will have to contend with. The first is the political, security and diplomatic environment in which these talks are being held. The second is the apparent disconnect between trying to bridge the trust deficit and the way this objective is sought to be achieved.

Politically, in India there isn’t too much public support for re-engagement with Pakistan. While the main opposition party, BJP, is not going on the warpath to oppose the dialogue with Pakistan, it is also not supporting it. Even within the ruling Congress party, support for the dialogue is very iffy. The mandate given to Mr. Krishna by the Union cabinet is very limited.

As far as Pakistan is concerned, the political realities in that country raise serious questions over the credibility of the civilian government as an effective interlocutor. It is by now an open secret that the civilian government’s ambit is limited to handling what are best described as municipal functions. Anything remotely related to national security is now almost entirely being handled by the Pakistan Army. And yet, in spite of the fact that the Pakistan Army runs Pakistan's India policy, the Indian leadership is extremely reluctant to open a channel of communication, must less engage, with the Pakistan Army.

Although Indian officials who visited Pakistan with the Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao and later Home Minister P. Chidambaram were pleasantly surprised by the reasonableness of the Pakistani officials – no recriminations, no remonstrations, no recidivism and most of all, no revanchism (over Kashmir) – they are neither convinced of Pakistan intentions nor are they willing to accept on face value Pakistani expressions of goodwill and sincerity. For good reasons, India sees this as part of a good-cop-bad-cop routine being played by the Pakistanis – civilian interlocutors playing nice guys and military interlopers playing the bad guys – and not as a sign that good sense has finally dawned on the Pakistanis that they need to normalise relations with India in their own interest.

After all, there is as yet neither anything on the ground to suggest that Pakistan is ready to address India’s core concerns on terrorism, nor any indication of any positive change in Pakistan's attitude or thinking towards India. Quite to the contrary, not only are reports pouring in that Pakistan has restarted the jihad factory directed against India, the Pakistan Army chief is on record that India, and not the barbaric Taliban, is the enemy that poses an existential threat to Pakistan.

Diplomatically, Pakistan’s cockiness knows no bounds, infused as it is with the misplaced triumphalism over the pivotal role it believes it is on the verge of acquiring in Afghanistan. The Pakistanis are convinced that with Western nations looking to them to provide a safe and honourable exit from Afghanistan, Pakistan is ideally placed to press home its demands on India with the influential members of the international community, especially the US. Indeed, the Pakistanis cannot stop crowing that India has restarted the dialogue under US pressure, which they think will extend to extracting concessions from India on issues like Jammu and Kashmir.

Perhaps, this is one reason why the Pakistanis have repudiated the ‘progress’ made on Kashmir in the back-channel during the Musharraf era. After all, why go in for a compromise when you stand the chance of gaining something without giving up anything? It is of course quite another matter that the Pakistanis have inadvertently done India a favour by junking the back-channel deal on Kashmir. Without Pakistan renouncing its irredentist claims on Jammu and Kashmir, a deal of the sort worked out on the back-channel would have allowed Pakistan to follow a salami-slicing approach on an integral part of India.

It of course goes without saying that the Pakistanis might be grossly over-estimating not only their diplomatic clout but also India’s susceptibility to US pressure. There are very clear limits, not to mention red lines, on how much pressure the US can put on India. While the US factor could have been one of the reasons why India decided to once again try to engage Pakistan, it was not so much pressure as it was a gesture from India to the US which is clutching at straws to find some balance in Afghanistan. In other words, by accepting the US suggestion to reopen a dialogue with Pakistan, India has effectively called Pakistan's bluff that its strained relations with India are preventing it from focussing its attention on the troubled Pashtun tribal belt straddling Afghanistan.

The sooner the US disabuses itself of the notion that improved atmospherics between India and Pakistan will lead to Pakistan shifting its focus from the eastern to the western border, the better. After all, if this didn’t happen during the 2004-2008 period when relations between India and Pakistan were the most relaxed in decades, it is unlikely to happen now when the two sides have barely started trying to put together another peace process. On the flip side, the impression that US pressure has been at play in nudging India to the dialogue table with Pakistan has emboldened Pakistan to a dangerous point where it thinks it can once again use with impunity its jihadi proxies against India in Afghanistan as well as Kashmir.

While the political, security and diplomatic obstacles in the path of the latest India-Pakistan dialogue are obvious enough, there is another factor that will come in the way of any forward movement – the mismatch between the stated objective of the dialogue – bridging the trust deficit – and the manner in which this objective is sought to be reached. In other words, what is that big idea that is going to be on the talks table that could lead to the two countries moving towards building trust and confidence between them. As things stand, the two delegations will probably end up discussing the same old issues, taking the same old positions, and walking away after agreeing on a few minor things – exchange of prisoners, release of fishermen, etc.

Clearly, neither side seems to have worked out how to bridge the trust gap without treading the beaten path. Nor for that matter have the two sides figured out what they think they must do or can do to gain the trust of the other side. An agreement on another set of Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) is a good thing. But frankly speaking, CBMs haven’t really helped in building any confidence at least not in the strategic sense of the term. The trouble is that given the complete absence of trust between them, it is futile to expect either India or Pakistan to undertake any sort of bold initiative that ushers in a paradigm change in their bilateral relationship. In other words, we are condemned to going around in circles.

One possible way out is to restructure the dialogue in a way that the two countries engage each other in a formal but unstructured strategic political dialogue which focuses beyond immediate disputes and problems. This means that while the two foreign offices continue to handle the existing issues and problems, and the security agencies can keep doing what they must do to counter the hostile action from Pakistan, a parallel but official and yet informal and unstructured dialogue focusing on strategic issues be started at the political level, as also between the military and intelligence agencies. These parallel dialogue tracks can be used to explore any possible convergence of strategic interests by developing a better appreciation of each other’s concerns and compulsions and try and see if anything can be done to address them.

To be useful and effective, this ‘strategic dialogue’ can and must be an officially sponsored and empowered ‘Track 1.5’ (perhaps under the Ministry of External Affairs) with a wide representation from the strategic community, military and intelligence officials, academics, politicians, even media personnel. This group will engage with their counterparts in Pakistan on larger strategic issues which are not limited to only the narrow India-Pakistan context. In other words, their discussions will focus on how either side views global and regional developments like Pakistan-China relations, India-US relations, piracy in the Arabian Sea, unrest in the Middle East, climate change, the list is endless. The discussions will be unstructured in the sense that the agenda for the talks will be very general, and the setting informal. The mandate of the group will not be reaching an agreement on any issue. Instead, the group’s job will be to get a better understanding of how the other side views issues of common concern and to then see if there are any points of possible convergence of interests as also allay certain misconceptions in the other side of strategic objectives of the other side.

Will such an alternative dialogue process work? Probably not, but then if the idea is to bridge the yawning and ever growing trust deficit, doesn’t it make more sense to try a new and different tack, rather than keep treading the beaten path.

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Indo-Pak Dialogue by T. Rama Bhat