Talks with no solutions
20 April, 2010
By Dr Maleeha Lodhi
As Pakistan mulls over the next step in the diplomatic engagement with India, Delhi wants to have it both ways. It seeks third-party intercession to mount pressure on Pakistan to meet its demands but vehemently objects when Pakistan asks for international help to resolve differences between the two countries.
Indian officials declare that they are open to dialogue but resist talks aimed at finding solutions to disputes. Delhi embarks on a spending spree to continue a substantial military build-up but protests over the modest US military assistance to Pakistan.
These are some of the dilemmas that Islamabad confronts in navigating the complex shoals of diplomacy with Delhi. For now Pakistani officials await a clear response to the proposals they made during the last diplomatic encounter in February between the foreign secretaries in Delhi. Islamabad had proposed a roadmap leading to a summit-level meeting between the prime ministers of the two countries at the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) conference due to be held in Bhutan on April 28 and 29. It had also suggested that the summit meeting should announce the resumption of broad-based formal peace talks.
Although Prime Ministers Yousuf Raza Gilani and Manmohan Singh had a chance meeting earlier this month on the sidelines of the US-hosted Nuclear Security Summit, this was little more than a photo opportunity. Islamabad clearly wants any encounter in Bhutan to go beyond optics and pave the way for result-oriented engagement.
For its part Delhi has hinted that it expects foreign secretary Nirupama Rao to be invited to Islamabad for a return visit. But it has declined to indicate an agenda for the meeting. Pakistan`s thinking on further meetings without an agenda is that rather than advance the process of normalising relations they would be reduced to platforms for Delhi to deliver homilies on terrorism.
This is what the previous round of talks turned out to be. Even though the Delhi parleys helped to end a 14-month diplomatic standoff the two sides were unable to agree on the timing, modalities and agenda for future talks.
It is instructive to consider what has happened since the February talks. The trajectory of developments has not been promising. They include:
* Indian complaints to the US about Pakistan`s "lack of seriousness" in addressing Delhi`s terrorism-related demands.
* The failure of the talks between the Permanent Indus Waters Commissions of the two countries in March. This was followed and preceded by dismissive statements from Indian officials also accusing Pakistan of using the water issue as "propaganda" along with flat denials that Delhi was diverting the Indus waters.
* The Indian foreign secretary`s visit in March to Washington where she assailed Pakistan in public forums and private meetings, accusing it of using terrorism as an instrument of policy.
* Continued Indian diplomatic efforts in key capitals of the world to malign Pakistan and shift the entire onus of responsibility to Islamabad for the resumption of full-fledged talks.
The most significant recent development was the meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and US President Barack Obama in which the former reportedly conveyed India`s concerns about the lack of Pakistani movement to act against the perpetrators of the Mumbai terrorist incident and curb the activities of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). Mr Singh later said he hoped that the points he raised would "weigh considerably" with the US administration. These `points` were duly passed on to Prime Minister Gilani by President Obama during their meeting.
On the water issue, a new pattern seems to have emerged in the past month of Indian officials seeking to portray the water issue as devoid of substance, implying therefore that there was nothing to settle. In a series of comments to foreign and Indian papers, unnamed Indian officials have been cited as saying that Pakistan`s position on the Indus waters issue was a "political gimmick…. designed to place yet one more agenda item in (an) already complex relationship".
Elsewhere Indian officials accused Pakistan of creating a "frenzy" while dismissing the issue as a Pakistani effort to create an "Indian bogey" and divert the blame for water shortages whose causes lay within Pakistan. This is a far cry from a problem-solving approach when one side declines to even acknowledge the existence of a dispute.
As for the Indian foreign secretary`s statements, at one public forum in Washington, she devoted a good part of her speech on Indo-US relations to Pakistan`s `conduct`. Among the pronouncements she made – unseemly in a third country – was that Pakistan used terrorism as a policy tool. India she said should not be expected to resume full-scale talks until Pakistan is able to "cease its encouragement of terrorist groups that were targeting India". She also claimed that Pakistan had conveyed to India that it was not in a position to guarantee that it could control terrorism.
Meanwhile Delhi`s opposition to US military sales to Pakistan appears rather rich given India`s own record of contracting multiple arms deals with several countries under a five-year $50 billion plan to modernise its military. Its defence budget in the fiscal year ending March 2010 represented a whopping 70 per cent increase from five years ago.
What does India`s more strident posture in the international arena imply? The most obvious answer is that the strategy is designed to maintain western pressure on Pakistan and continue efforts to undercut its position at a time when there is an international consensus to help Pakistan address terrorism, fight militancy and establish economic stability.
Delhi`s activism against Pakistan may also be a reaction to three more immediate and inter-related developments. One, the upswing in Pakistan-US ties generated by last month`s strategic dialogue in Washington. The new momentum in relations seems to have evoked worry in Delhi that Washington`s growing reliance on Pakistan to accomplish its regional strategy would ease pressure on Islamabad. As a consequence India has sought to ratchet up pressure on Washington to lean on Pakistan on the LeT and related issues.
Two, the Obama administration`s role in seeking to defuse Pakistan-India tensions appears to have produced Indian disquiet about Washington`s moves in this regard. What may have accentuated the anxiety is the leak of a secret directive President Obama issued last December calling for US diplomatic efforts to focus on easing tensions in the subcontinent, without accomplishing which US goals in Afghanistan would be jeopardised.
And three, Delhi`s behaviour could also be a reflection of the uncertainties created by its own assessment that India doesn`t figure as high in the Obama administration`s foreign policy priorities as China and Pakistan. These concerns have been frequently aired in the Indian media and expressed in the columns of writers close to India`s foreign policy establishment.
All of this complicates the challenge of finding a way forward towards a dialogue that helps improve the climate for bilateral relations. Even if a prime minister-level meeting at the Saarc summit materialises – and there is a good chance that it might – behind the anticipated smiles and handshakes will lie the more important task of engaging India in a process that involves talks to find solutions – not diplomatic theatre in which one side tries to impose a unilateral, terrorism-only agenda, that deflects from the disputes that continue to fester and bedevil relations.
There is no substitute for wider talks that can address the concerns and priorities of both sides. Ad hoc, sporadic engagement will only produce fitful and fruitless dialogue which will be susceptible to a relapse in tensions. Peace cannot be pursued by selective engagement and a patchwork process that ignores the issues that lie at the heart of Pakistan-India tensions and mistrust.
So long as agreement on the scope and framework of the dialogue remains elusive the fate of the normalisation process will remain in question. And so will the prospects for peace.