Pakistan must avoid being lured into accepting a selective or conditional approach to engagement because of an eagerness to engage Modi
DR MALEEHA LODHI
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]here has been much official and media hype about Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s recent visit to Delhi. It is important to dispassionately review what happened and what didn’t in order to carefully evaluate what should be the way forward.
The prime minister’s decision to attend Narendra Modi’s oath-taking ceremony was a step in the right direction. In accepting the invitation, his visit aimed to break the ice between the two countries, ease tensions and assess the possibilities for a reset of ties.
Even if the invitation to Saarc leaders was designed to turn Modi’s inauguration into a legitimacy-building exercise for a leader with a controversial past, it presented Mr Sharif an opportunity to establish early contact with the man who will rule India for the next five years.
The encounter between the two took place in a cordial environment and produced positive optics – at least until the Indian foreign secretary’s post-meeting briefing in which she cast this as dominated by India’s ‘terrorism’ agenda.
For all the expectations raised by the 50-minute bilateral meeting, here is what didn’t happen.
• No resumption of dialogue between the two countries was announced. The only modest outcome was for the foreign secretaries to “remain in touch and explore how to move forward”. This implied more ‘talks about talks’, but with no timeframe set for this.
• There was no re-commitment to the broad-based peace process, known for years as the “composite” dialogue. Instead, the Pakistani side gratuitously indicated during the visit that it was not “hung up” on that structure.
• No effort was made to articulate and reflect Pakistan’s priorities and concerns in the prime minister’s only public pronouncement after his meeting with Modi. This, despite the fact that the statement followed the Indian foreign secretary Sujatha Singh’s briefing, in which she laid out India’s ‘terror’ demands, which should have been a reality check for the Pakistani side.
• The Pakistani delegation did not try to correct Singh’s characterization of the meeting as centered on terror, allowing the Indian side to set the narrative with no Pakistani counterpoise to this.
• Kashmir was not mentioned in the prime ministerial statement. Nor was it raised in the delegation level talks. Officials, however, claim Mr Sharif raised this in the one-on-one with his counterpart.
• In an unfortunate break with tradition, there was no meeting between Kashmiri leaders of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) and the prime minister or any member of his delegation.
Much of the above was indirectly acknowledged by the adviser on foreign affairs, Sartaj Aziz, in a press conference after the visit. A disingenuous explanation was offered of why the Pakistani side failed to raise substantive issues. This, Aziz said, was a ‘ceremonial trip” during which discussions on substantive issues, including Kashmir, were not on the agenda.
He failed to explain why, when confronted with substantive issues from the other side Pakistan’s delegation demurred from raising its core issues. At the very least this speaks of poor and unprofessional handling of a well-intentioned visit.
Aziz did not mention that even on trade, Delhi conveyed willingness to restart the process from the September 2012 talks and not January-February 2014, when commerce minister Khurram Dastgir had negotiated improved terms with Delhi, which then agreed to open its market to more items of Pakistan’s export interest in a shortened timeframe. This implied hardening of the Modi government’s position on the issue.
More significant was Aziz’s pronouncement that Pakistan was open to restructuring of the “composite” dialogue. This reiterated what the Pakistani delegation had earlier conveyed to journalists in Delhi about the willingness to pursue a “new architecture” for talks.
To so cavalierly abandon Pakistan’s longstanding position – without any sense of what might replace this structure or what India would agree to – is beyond comprehension. For Pakistan, the broad-gauge talks framework, encompassing an eight-point agenda, has been an issue of substance not process, because this structure reflected all the concerns and disputes of importance to Islamabad.
In fact, this comprehensive structure for talks, drawn up in 1997, remained in play for almost a decade and a half despite disruptions and fits and starts because it reflected the concerns and priorities of both countries. The most recent disruption was in January 2013, when India suspended formal talks after tensions flared up on the Line of Control in Kashmir.
A similar diplomatic hiatus followed in the wake of the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai. But in 2011 India had a change of heart and returned to the “composite” dialogue, in all but name. Two full rounds of the resumed post-Mumbai talks followed. The third barely began when the dialogue was called off in January 2013. It did not subsequently resume. India agreed only to meetings ‘outside’ that framework, as for example on trade.
Between 2008 and 2011, and more recently, Indian officials often said the ‘composite’ process had run its course. They also tried to narrow the scope of the dialogue to the two Ts – terror and trade – in an effort to sideline long-standing disputes and issues of importance to Pakistan.
But even a weak PPP-led government was able to resist and hold the line on the broad-based dialogue, managing to persuade Delhi to revive the process. Ironically, a ‘strong’ PML-N government is now signalling its readiness to give up on that process. Its foreign policy team has failed to explain why it deems this process to be “redundant”.
The risks of abandoning a well-established multi-tiered process and recasting the terms of the future dialogue are obvious. India might seek to narrow the bandwidth of talks by cherry-picking issues of its priority – as it has tried to do in the recent past and as its foreign secretary’s remarks also suggest. Getting Modi’s government, intent on pursuing a “muscular” foreign policy, to include contentious issues important for Pakistan in a reconfigured structure could prove to be difficult.
The greatest risk lies in a ‘new architecture’ that might relegate Kashmir to the back channel and take it out of the formal peace process. This will erode its international and bilateral status as a dispute and send an unmistakably negative signal to the Kashmiris, at a time when BJP ministers are calling to strip Jammu and Kashmir of its special status under article 370 of their constitution.
For all these reasons it would be a diplomatic blunder to reopen the terms of an agreed framework for dialogue that survived over the years in the face of so many challenges and difficulties.
Islamabad now needs to take its time to think through its diplomatic strategy. As no date has been set for the two foreign secretaries to engage, this provides an opportunity to carefully evaluate the options and calibrate the next move after a realistic appraisal of Modi’s foreign policy, once this has been spelled out.
Pakistan must avoid being lured into accepting a selective or conditional approach to engagement because of an eagerness to engage Modi. As the history of Pakistan-India relations attests, focusing on a partial or single-track agenda and casting aside contentious issues will not build a sustainable basis for normalization.
Islamabad should also guard against any attempt by Delhi to use the revival of full-fledged talks as some kind of ‘reward’ in exchange for prior concessions from Pakistan, as it has sometimes tried to do in the past.
While the two countries should strive to build on areas of convergence such as trade, the dialogue process should aim to give permanence and stability to normalization, by narrowing areas of contention and addressing disputes.
Trade relations will advance only if accompanied by efforts to deal with the fraught strategic environment that prevails. Economic engines are insufficient to power a peace process if the sources of instability remain in place.
The government should stop pretending that goodwill alone can substitute for strategy. It should acknowledge that enduring peace requires reciprocity and cannot be built by one side alone. Nor will appeasement or abandonment of Pakistan’s principled positions bring peace.–Courtesy The News International
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