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Engaging Pakistan: Shift in the Post-Mumbai Posture

Smruti S. Pattanaik is Research Fellow (SS) at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • June 07, 2010

    In his May 24 press conference, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, “It is my firm belief that India cannot realise its full potential unless we have the best possible relations with our neighbours and Pakistan happens to be the largest neighbour of ours.” The Prime Minister’s statement raises certain important questions. Did India achieve its objectives by not talking to Pakistan post-Mumbai? Is a no talk policy sustainable given the international environment? What would India achieve by resuming talks with Pakistan?

    After 26/11 there was a popular opinion against continuing a dialogue with Pakistan. The international community, while empathising with India’s viewpoint, urged Pakistan to take action against the master-minds of the Mumbai attack, while at the same time emphasising the need for dialogue between the two countries. India’s posture of no-dialogue partially achieved its objectives. Pakistan arrested seven accused including Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi and Zarar Shah, who India believed to be masterminds of the Mumbai attack. A court in Rawalpindi has indicted the seven accused in the case. However, the larger objective of dealing with these elements remains unattained.

    India’s stance of not talking to Pakistan was short-lived given the geo-political imperatives of the war on terror. Moreover, with the exit of George W. Bush, India became marginal to US interests in the region. Indo-US engagement is comprehensive and has a global agenda at its core whereas US-Pakistan engagement is specific to the war on terror. Given public opinion against a long drawn war, the Obama administration’s Af-Pak policy has re-emphasised Pakistan’s important role in the US exit strategy. To satisfy Pakistan, India was sidelined in the Afghan strategy. Pakistan, for its part, has tried to leverage its importance for the United States by threatening to shift troops to the eastern frontier, which led to a Western chorus on the importance of India-Pakistan dialogue to de-escalate tension.

    It is against this backdrop that India and Pakistan announced the resumption of dialogue in a joint statement issued at Sharm-el Sheikh. Ironically, India which after Mumbai had linked the dialogue process to Pakistan taking credible action against the perpetrators of that attack, effected a major shift in its position by agreeing to delink terrorism from the dialogue process. It also agreed to discuss Balochistan, which, many in India felt, gave a diplomatic edge to Pakistan’s accusation of Indian involvement there. Defending his initiative Prime Minister Manmohan Singh explained in Parliament that, “It has been and remains our consistent position that the starting point of any meaningful dialogue with Pakistan is a fulfilment of their commitment, in letter and spirit, not to allow their territory to be used in any manner for terrorist activities against India.” India, in fact, reverted to its pre-Sharm-el Sheikh stance due to domestic opposition against de-linking terrorism and the resumption of India-Pakistan dialogue. Yet, less than a year later, India has again declared that it is ready to resume talks with Pakistan though the talks would focus on its core concern of terrorism. Be that as it may, the question here is why did India agreed to de-link terrorism from the dialogue process at Sharm-el Sheikh? It appears that India tried to strike a balance between domestic public opinion to exert pressure on Pakistan to address the issue of terrorism and international pressure to resume dialogue.

    There is no denying the fact that dialogue is the only way out between India and Pakistan. Moreover, it is not possible to sustain the no-dialogue stance due to international pressure. There is also pressure from some sections of Indian civil society which have started the initiative of ‘aman ki asha’. It will take some time to prepare the domestic audience to support the resumption of bilateral composite dialogue. Another reason for Indian reluctance to resume the composite dialogue is that it would send a wrong signal to Pakistan that everything is normal between the two countries. In any case nobody in India seriously thinks that Pakistan would deliver on the issue of terrorism.

    While compulsions are many, India needs to devise a well calibrated policy towards Pakistan. There is a need to restructure the composite dialogue to deal with terrorism. The water issue has emerged as another problem area. Trust deficit has been a major problem between the two countries. This was underlined in the meeting between the Indian and Pakistani prime ministers in Thimpu on the sidelines of SAARC. The two governments have now agreed that their Foreign Secretaries would meet followed by their Foreign Ministers to address the trust deficit. Greater bilateral contacts to some extent would deal with trust deficit. This should be followed by engagement between the two armies and the intelligence agencies. It is a well known fact that Pakistan Army has a greater say on Pakistan’s India policy. Its raison d'être is based on anti-India sentiments. It is therefore in India’s interest to engage the civilian government and not allow the tensions between the two countries to weaken the nascent democratic experiment. Contrary to Manmohan Singh’s expectation that engaging Pakistan would help India achieve ‘it’s full potential’, it is likely that Pakistan would do everything to prevent India from gaining such a larger global role. Whether it is resumption of contacts between the two governments or composite dialogue, bilateral engagement has its own advantage. It would reduce tension between the two countries and deflect international pressure on India to resume dialogue. Moreover Pakistan would now have no excuse to divert its troop from the Western border. It will be compelled to deal with radical Islamic elements and their cohorts and expand its operation in the tribal area. This would have implications not only for regional peace but for India-Pakistan relations in general and the issue of terrorism in particular.