The review of the composite bilateral dialogue process by the Foreign Ministers of India and Pakistan on May 22 at Islamabad was significant in many ways. This was the first ever review, that too during the course of the first ever high level visit by an Indian minister after the new government took power in Pakistan. Both countries have accepted a gradual process of resolving the outstanding issues between them. Pakistan has said that it is important to raise awareness among the people about their stake in the peace process. Arguably, a continuation of the peace process in itself would provide the atmosphere needed to resolve longstanding issues. The talks this time were devoid of polemic, which has many times in the past created unnecessary bitterness and hopelessness about such an exercise. Moreover, both countries were circumspect in their statements so as not to build up high expectations on these talks, thereby containing media hysteria. It also appeared that Kashmir is no more a yardstick to measure success or failure of talks. This is significant and in the long run would moderate expectations that are sometimes built only to result in frustration.
The Foreign Secretary level talks that preceded the Foreign Ministers’ meeting was also a testing ground to gauge whether there would be a shift away from the policy of the outgoing military-dominated government. The new government led by the PPP has expressed its commitment to the ongoing peace process. Its approach was made clear by Asif Zardari on March 1, when he said that he would give emphasis to the economic dimension of India-Pakistan relations. Though this had given rise to speculation and criticism that the PPP-led government would not give importance to the Kashmir issue, these have been laid to rest by Zardari’s subsequent statement that Kashmir is indeed an important issue that needs to be resolved.
The objective of the talks at the Foreign Ministers’ level, as Pakistan described it, was “improvement of atmospherics and abetment of tensions.” The talks resulted in agreements on some Confidence Building Measures. There were offers to increase the frequency of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad and Poonch-Rawalkot bus services. There was also talk of granting tourist visas to enhance people-to-people contact as well as on consular access to prisoners in each other’s country. Both countries have also decided to maintain the ceasefire along the Line of Control, which recently witnessed some incidents of firing.
India and Pakistan have agreed to activate the anti-terrorism mechanism, which has been inactive for many months since its formation in 2007. For the first time, the two countries appeared empathetic towards each other’s concerns and problems. This was reflected by Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s answer to the question pertaining to the extradition of Dawood Ibrahim, when he said that already an Interpol warrant has been issued. For his part, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, answering a question about whether India is engaging in an arms race, said that Indian government is concerned about pressing economic issues. Both Ministers avoided any statement that may vitiate the atmosphere of cordiality.
The window of opportunity for better bilateral relations lies in the statement of Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, when he said “Our government is ready for the grand reconciliation for the resolution of longstanding issues that need to be resolved peacefully through dialogue and in a manner that is dignified and commensurate with the self respect of involved parties.” This statement signifies the willingness to accommodate and the pursuit of a win-win solution on various issues and importantly on Kashmir. Pakistan continues to emphasise upon UN resolutions, with the new government trying to establish a balance between continuity and shift in its Kashmir policy while keeping various other interests in mind. It is cautious about pronouncing a major policy shift while heading a coalition government. However, the grand reconciliation could essentially indicate its preparedness to make some shift in Pakistan’s foreign policy of sixty years which was centred on UN resolutions. It also signals that Islamabad would continue the peace process initiated by the Musharraf regime. The talks also symbolises the fact that a popularly elected government in Pakistan has now given the sanction for the peace process that is under way, rather than disowning it or trying to start afresh. The PPP-led government is yet to consolidate itself and is facing a challenge to its stability over a host of internal political issues. Under these circumstances, a major change in India-Pakistan relations would be difficult to initiate. Nawaz Sharif, in his interview to the Hindustan Times on May 21, has also indicated that he would follow through with the peace process that is already under way.
Still, there are fears and apprehensions about the future of the peace process, and understandably so. The apprehension is whether a government that does not have a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly has the ability to carry along the religious parties and their prodigies in cultivating good relations with India. Another factor in this regard is the new government’s relations with the Army. Confrontational politics is increasingly appearing to become a reality in Pakistan as there are indications of a possible tussle between the President and Parliament. The only factor that is different this time around is the realisation among political parties that they should stand together and not to allow the military to take advantage of dissensions among them. And they know that raising the Kashmir issue when the government is fragile will give importance to the military at a time when the civilian government is trying to consolidate its position and control. The India-Pakistan bonhomie is therefore likely to continue notwithstanding the political crisis that Pakistan seems to be heading towards.