Talk, no talk, postpone talks, agenda free talks, talk but with no terror attack, assure no more attacks and we will talk, talk but without mention of Kashmir, talk terrorism and no Kashmir, talk about cultural exchange and music programmes, or talk, talk whatever might happen. There is no dearth of options, suggestions, expert inputs for Modi government, like governments earlier on how to shape relations with a troublesome neighbour like Pakistan.
Media reports on National Security Advisor Ajit Doval favouring postponement of foreign secretary level talks until Pakistan shows “some progress” on investigation of men and conspiracy behind Pathankot attacks has once again exposed the fragility of the idea of resuming talks with Pakistan.
Hundreds of hours of airtime have been spent on discussing Pakistan’s complicity and involvement in attack on an air force base in Pathankot. Evidence ranging from markings on syringes and medicines is being bandied about to convince Indians and the world that Pakistani military has sponsored this attack. So what is new? We seem to be so busy convincing ourselves that Pakistan based terror groups are still active.
It would be naïve to believe that just because Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a dramatic gesture in stopping over at Lahore, and reportedly said “abh to aana jaana laga rahenga” (there would be constant travel and meetings between the two) that cross-border terrorism would end! It would be equally incorrect to assume that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s engagement with Modi precludes all intervention and ownership of policy towards India by Pakistan’s powerful generals. Army Chief Raheel Sharif’s public persona and his popularity among vast sections of people would give any political leader sleepless nights. But, that is Pakistan where civilian leaders get their moments of glory and public adulation under the tight gaze of Rawalpindi cantonment.
Gen Sharif has got Facebook pages and Twitter handles praising him and thanking him for Operation Zarb-e-Arb launched against terrorist groups attacking Pakistani towns and cities after Peshawar school attacks. The Army Chief has his photos painted on trucks, buses, on banners and buntings across the country. He has treated by many as a messiah who will end everything that plagues Pakistan, from terrorism to corruption.
He and his men control every policy decision that involves India. Modi government's efforts to join the Afghanistan-Pakistan Trade and Transit Agreement that would give India land access to Afghanistan via Pakistan has been stalled by the Army which, controls India-specific policies.
This is known and not hidden from anyone in the government of India and foreign policy circles.
Modi and BJP led a campaign against UPA’s alleged soft line towards Pakistan. The electorate was made to believe that Modi government would not talk until cross-border terrorism ended. It will not end until the Pakistan Army decides. And Pakistan Army is unlikely to change its policy towards India irrespective of the familiarity and cordial ties between political leaders. Soon after coming to power Modi government tried to put its electoral promise on dealing with Pakistan into action by calling off talks when the envoy in New Delhi met Hurriyat leaders, and for months did not officially talk until the “breakthrough” meeting between two NSAs in Bangkok.
The government seemed to realise that holding no talks is not an option that it assiduously promoted among India’s voters in the run-up to elections. Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj travelled to Pakistan for ‘Heart of Asia’ conference and on return announced a change in strategy in Lok Sabha that the two countries must continue to talk.
Change in outlook towards Pakistan was then dramatically articulated by Modi by his stop over for tea in Lahore.
The bonhomie was under attack when heavily armed terrorists attacked Pathankot airbase.
What to do now? Continue with FS level talks on 15 January or put it off for some time or put it off until Pakistan shows “credible” steps to arrest those who planned the Pathankot attack? The choice is not easy. After saying that “abh to aana jaana laga rahega” PM Modi signalled that no incident or attack could derail the resumption of talks between the two countries. Something many have advocated for long.
The crux of the problem, however, is not the timing of talks but, frankly what is the bottom line? What is the base level of security problem or infiltration from Pakistan that is acceptable to India’s political parties and leaders for relationship with Islamabad to be cultivated? Pakistan’s military will not end its patronage of India-focussed terror groups, it will continue to create obstacles for India to deepen engagement with Afghanistan and finally, it will remained steadfast in keeping the Kashmir issue alive globally.
At Tuesday’s last State of the Union Address President Barack Obama mentioned Afghanistan and Pakistan as countries that would remain unstable for decades and as possible haven for terrorists.
India needs to debate, discuss and reach a consensus on how it wants to deal with Pakistan. Talk now or no talk, or talk later has to be based on serious introspection. It cannot be based on knee-jerk reactions and TV anchors.