Indo-Pak Talks Over Already?

Recent Features

Features | Politics | South Asia

Indo-Pak Talks Over Already?

Don’t expect any progress in ties until Pakistan’s military sees something in it for itself, says Sumit Ganguly.

Another round of Indo-Pakistani talks has drawn to a close, and, once again, there’s little to shout about. India had suspended discussions in the aftermath of the horrific terrorist attacks on Mumbai in November 2008, and, given the secrecy that surrounded these latest talks, it’s far from clear what exactly was said as they resumed.

But what we do know doesn’t give much cause for optimism.

The public statements of Pakistani Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir, who led the country’s delegation, were neither cordial nor helpful. Among other things, he declared that the evidence that India had presented in the dossier against Hafiz Mohammed Sayeed, the head of the dreaded Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist group, was ‘literature not evidence.’  Such a remark will only strengthen existing opposition to the talks within India (where there is little support for them) and undermine the likelihood of further discussions, something already complicated by much wariness on the part of the Pakistani military.

For her part, Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao offered little of substance in her public comments, simply reiterating the government’s known stance in demanding Pakistan eschew all ties to terror. She also made clear that while Pakistan should be commended on the steps it has taken to bring the perpetrators of the November 2008 terrorist attacks to justice, her government hoped that much more was to follow–and soon.

Such pronouncements are all too familiar–India outlines its previously stated positions and Pakistan dismisses these concerns. Yet frustrating as the outcome is, it should hardly have been a surprise. The civilian regime of Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, which faces various legal challenges at home, exists at the sufferance of the Pakistani military establishment. Under these circumstances, it was simply unreasonable to expect that any real movement would take place.

Why then is India persisting with the talks? At least three explanations of varying probability can be proffered. First, India is under pressure from the United States to renew negotiations with Pakistan. This view, popular in New Delhi, is perhaps the least plausible. Given the chill that has entered Indo-US relations following a number of awkward clashes with the Obama administration, including over the clumsy US suggestion in Beijing that China might play a positive role in easing tensions in South Asia, it’s unlikely the government in New Delhi is in the mood to heed American exhortations.

Second, it’s possible that India has chosen to open talks with Pakistan simply to demonstrate to the global community its neighbour’s intransigence and rigidity. This is a distinct possibility, especially given Bashir’s public pronouncements–his remarks may well please his military counterparts, but they’re unlikely to win many plaudits on the global diplomatic stage. If India wanted to lay bare the recalcitrance of its neighbour, it has certainly succeeded in moving in this direction.

A third, quite plausible option, is that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh simply really wants to make peace with Pakistan. Some in India’s foreign policy quarters suggest that the talks are a consequence of Singh’s dogged pursuit of this goal and that Singh believes he can make a breakthrough in Indo-Pakistani relations because he doesn’t have a long personal history of rancour with Pakistan. This explanation is plausible, and Singh certainly has the appropriate mien, temperament and personal background to follow up on such a bold gamble.

But setting aside the motivation, are these talks likely to go anywhere? For now, the chances, quite frankly, seem remote. The civilian regime in Pakistan is in no position at present to make what international politics scholars refer to as a ‘credible commitment’ — namely one that will be upheld in the future. Its grip on political power is far too tenuous and it is too beholden to the military establishment and therefore simply not well placed to make progress on contentious issues where it may have to make important and costly concessions.

For any real progress in such talks, the Pakistani military establishment must become convinced that these discussions are really in its own interests. It is widely believed (although there is little on record to confirm this) that India and Pakistan came remarkably close to reaching agreement on two contested issues–delimitation of a boundary in Sir Creek (some marshlands near the state of Gujarat) and more importantly, on the Siachen Glacier in the Karakorum Range, the site of a particularly brutal and costly dispute.  But the reason no agreement was reached then is instructive on why there is little prospect of progress now–according to most interlocutors, a deal came apart because General Pervez Musharraf ran into domestic troubles in late 2007.

If the two sides really did come close on these two fractious matters, it’s possible that at some point the military will, when less preoccupied with domestic politics and the Afghan front, grant a civilian regime sufficient leeway to negotiate with India in good faith. However, without the military’s tacit but critical imprimatur, it’s difficult to see for now how these talks will move forward.

But then, with the stakes so high for both countries, maybe it’s also in both their interests to keep the talks going, however slim the prospects in the immediate future.

Sumit Ganguly currently holds the Ngee Ann Chair in International Relations at  the Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.