December 13, 2015

India-Pakistan Talks:Move Forward

THE visit of Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj to Islamabad to attend a conference on Afghanistan, preceded by the meeting of the national security advisors and foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan, mark an abrupt reversal by the Modi government of its stand with regard to talks with Pakistan. While it marks a welcome change, it also underlines the flip-flops and the lack of consistency in Indian diplomacy vis-à-vis Pakistan. The Modi government had adopted a confrontationist stance regarding the continuation of the dialogue with Pakistan since coming to power. The foreign secretary talks which were scheduled to be held in August 2014 were called off on the pretext that the Pakistani foreign secretary was going to meet the Hurriyat leaders from Jammu & Kashmir during his visit. After a gap of nearly a year, the two prime ministers met at Ufa in Russia and decided on talks between the national security advisors and the heads of the border para-military forces. These talks also failed to take off among mutual recriminations about the agenda – India insisting that terrorism was the sole agenda and Pakistan maintaining that Kashmir and other outstanding issues should be taken up. The issue of the Hurriyat leaders meeting with the Pakistani national security advisor was also objected to by India. The Modi government and the BJP by this time had adopted a position that the talks could be held only if terrorism was addressed first. In the meantime, the situation on the Line of Control in Jammu & Kashmir deteriorated with constant shelling and firing across the border. Within Jammu & Kashmir, attacks by the Fidayeen from across the border were stepped up. The Indian government maintained that unless Pakistan take steps to stop infiltration across the border and discuss terrorism related matters, there was no point in holding talks. Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Srinagar in November this year and despite expectations among the political circles in Jammu & Kashmir that he would make some announcement regarding improving relations with Pakistan, none was forthcoming. The change that has come, therefore, seems to be an about-turn. The two prime ministers had a few minutes interaction at Paris on the sidelines of the Climate Summit. This resulted in a secretive meeting held in Bangkok on December 6, 2015 between the Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Pakistani National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. Naseer Janjua. They were joined by the foreign secretaries of both countries. The statement issued after the meeting stated that the “Discussions covered peace and security, terrorism, Jammu & Kashmir and other issues, including tranquility along the LoC”. It was also decided to carry forward this engagement. Four months after the calling off, of the Ufa-sponsored talks, India has accepted to discuss Jammu & Kashmir and other issues apart from terrorism. These were all issues being discussed under the composite dialogue earlier which include also the Sir Creek dispute and the deployment of forces at the Siachen Glacier. What has caused the Modi government to backtrack from this rigid and unreasonable posture? The Modi government failed to isolate Pakistan internationally by posing the issue of terrorism as the roadblock to negotiations. It was galling for India to see how the United States stepped up military aid to Pakistan. During Nawaz Sharif’s visit to Washington, the US reaffirmed Pakistan key role in the negotiations with the Taliban. Even within the SAARC countries, India found itself isolated. The stance adopted that India would firmly counter the terrorist attacks from across the border by security operations and compel Pakistan to come to terms on the issue has also reached a dead-end. As against this aggressive posture, the realisation must have sunk in that without talking to Pakistan and improving relations, the problem of terrorist violence cannot be tackled. At the international level, the United States chiefly and the EU countries continue to mount pressure on India to resume talks. The Modi government which has allied itself closely with the United States could not resist the pressure. Finally, the reality that Pakistan has become a central player in the resolution of the Afghanistan conflict faced India with the prospect of getting isolated in the regional multilateral efforts and consultations. The participation of Sushma Swaraj in the Heart of Asia conference is a recognition of this. The fiasco of the Pakistan policy of the Modi government shows the perils of adopting the ultra-nationalist, national security approach of the National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, who seems to have had an inordinate role in formulating the confront Pakistan policy, with Modi’s blessings. The RSS and the BJP hardliners are, no doubt, unhappy with this new turn in policy. But the Modi government should have hopefully learnt lessons from this dismal chapter of diplomacy with Pakistan. The announcement of a comprehensive dialogue as the outcome of Sushma Swaraj’s visit requires to be taken forward with no backtracking. (December 9, 2015)