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.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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.