Features | Politics | South Asia

Negotiations to Nowhere?

India and Pakistan are set to resume talks as part of their reengagement process later this month. Don’t expect too much, says Sumit Ganguly.

After a significant hiatus, brought on as a consequence of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, India and Pakistan have resumed a dialogue.

The discussions that are under way are multi-faceted. Many of them are covering issues that had previously been under discussion, including the demarcation of Sir Creek, the question of the Wullar Barrage and the demilitarization of the Siachen Glacier. Others are looking into issues of expanding people-to-people contacts through the expansion of the existing visa regime and also the boosting of trade and commercial ties.

To get to this point, both sides have made important concessions. Pakistan hasn’t insisted on granting the question of Kashmir primacy, and India hasn’t sought to highlight Pakistan’s support for terror as a basis of these discussions. Consequently, the prospects of any meaningful discussions haven’t promptly foundered. The avoidance of a swift deadlock would seem, then, to be cause for satisfaction.

Should it be? This is hardly the first time that the two states have engaged in complex negotiations to try and reach a lasting rapprochement. Indeed, if newspaper reports and the statements of a handful of individuals who were actually involved in those negotiations are to be believed, the two sides came perilously close to an overall agreement in 2007. These negotiations had started in 2004 and involved very careful, quiet and determined diplomacy. However, it’s widely held that the negotiations unravelled because of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s domestic woes. The final blow, of course, came in the wake of the Mumbai terrorist attacks.

The current negotiations probably wouldn’t be under way but for the grim determination of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Despite a lack of support amongst the bulk of his Cabinet colleagues, and a lack of interest in much of India’s civil society, he has persisted in this endeavour. His supporters have argued that the prime minister believes that a diplomatic breakthrough with Pakistan is essential to enable India to transcend the subcontinent, to pursue a glide path to economic growth and to emerge as a major power in the global order.

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It may appear churlish to argue against any attempt to ameliorate the tension-ridden Indo-Pakistani relationship. Surely, any effort to try and reduce long-standing differences deserves praise given that the two sides have gone two war four times and have endured multiple crises? More to the point, given that they are now both de facto nuclear weapons states, the stakes of war and peace in the region are higher than ever before.

Yet at the risk of sounding truculent, it’s still necessary to cast some doubt over the wisdom and utility of this latest round of discussions. There are multiple reasons.

At the outset, it’s important to understand that the civilian regime in Pakistan is in an utterly tenuous position for a host of reasons. The country is besieged with terrorist attacks on a routine basis and neither the regime nor the overweening military establishment has the slightest clue about how best to contain them. The military-intelligence apparatus hadn’t merely spawned, but had actually nurtured many of these terrorist organizations that are now wreaking havoc across the land. Unfortunately, they are now not wholly within the control of the organizations that were responsible for their genesis. A state that can’t control the actions of domestic terrorist groups can hardly be counted upon to curb the actions of those which it had explicitly fashioned to terrorize its neighbour as part of an asymmetric war strategy.

On another level, has the civilian regime demonstrated any interest in restraining the steady barrage of hostile propaganda that is fed on a daily basis to Pakistan’s mass public? Apologists for Pakistan routinely underscore the putative openness and liveliness of the Pakistani press, and the vigour of its electronic media – especially since the days of Musharraf. However, such dynamism must not be equated with the workings of a press that adheres to professional norms of conduct and discourse.

For example, in the wake of the horrific terrorist attacks on Mumbai, more than one Pakistani TV commentator peddled the bizarre theory that fringe elements of the Indian right-wing had actually orchestrated the attack to discredit Pakistan. These outrageous claims were hardly isolated events. More recently, key individuals both in the press and in government have started to darkly hint that a number of dramatic terrorist attacks in Pakistan are the work of foreign agents intent on destabilizing Pakistan. It doesn’t require any great leap of imagination to fathom which foreign agents are so suspect.

Against this backdrop, it’s difficult to believe that agreements reached with the present regime will actually be upheld and implemented in good faith. If the regime and the military were sincere about making meaningful progress with India, one useful signal would have involved making at least a token gesture of public restraint on virulent political commentary. Such an expectation is hardly unreasonable. After all, despite the professed claims of the freedom of the press, it’s well known that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate can and does proffer guidance to key segments of the popular press in terms of reporting on and commenting about India. Consequently, if the ISI-D, which is a handmaiden of the all-powerful security apparatus, were indeed on board with the peace process, there would have been a discernible shift in the terms of public discourse about India well beyond the usual and extremely limited number of votaries of Indo-Pakistani peace and amity.

The discussions that are under way are certainly well meaning, especially from the standpoint of the United Progressive Alliance regime in New Delhi. Good intentions in the realm of international relations, and particularly in the absence of a reliable and trustworthy partner, can wind up on the road to perdition. One can only hope that this latest round of discussions doesn’t lead to that tragic conclusion.