Modi’s yet to get a handle on dealing with Pakistan, but it’s encouraging that he wants to keep talking

by Seema Guha

“Old wine in old bottle,” is how former foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh described the resumption of the India-­Pakistan dialogue.

This time, it will be called a comprehensive bilateral dialogue instead of the UPA’s composite dialogue. But it will have the same segments – terrorism, Kashmir, peace and security, Siachen, Sir Creek, Wullar Barrage/Tulbul Navigation Project, economic and commercial cooperation, counter-terrorism, narcotics control, humanitarian issues, people-to-people exchanges and religious tourism.

 Modi’s yet to get a handle on dealing with Pakistan, but it’s encouraging that he wants to keep talking

Representational image. AFP

Meanwhile, analysts like Ajai Sahani, executive director of the Delhi-based Institute of Conflict Management, have berated the government for its renewed attempts at peacemaking as “completely illogical”. “This shows a complete absence of strategic understanding. The Modi government is doing exactly what it criticised the UPA for doing. What is the point of repeating the same mistakes over as over again? What happens when India and Pakistan talks?” asked Sahani. “They don’t talk to each other, but at each other, with an eye on the international community. Unless Pakistan does enough on terrorism, there is no point talking.”

But Sahani is in a minority. Most people have welcomed the breakthrough. Even if it leads to nothing, keeping a conversation going helps mitigate tension. But considering the fragile nature of India-Pakistan ties, no one is quite sure what form this latest gambit will take. But for now much of the world is applauding the statesmanship of Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif.

The two began the process in the Russian town of Ufa, with the announcement of talks between the Nation Security Advisors of the two countries. That came to naught. Next the two prime ministers had a short conversation in Paris. Nothing more was said about it, till the Bangkok meeting on Sunday between the NSAs was held.

It was evident then that the India’s external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj would travel to Islamabad for the regional meeting on Afghanistan held on December 8 and 9. It was clear that her visit had more to do with breaking the bilateral deadlock rather than the Heart of Asia conference. She did just that, but left lots of loose ends to be tied up.

What happens when a Pakistan official delegation meets the Kashmiri separatists ahead of talks? Has New Delhi received some sort of assurance from Pakistan that this will not happen? But knowing Pakistan’s domestic compulsions, it is hardly likely that the army will agree to this. Or can it be that India has decided to overlook Pakistani officials meeting the Hurriyat Conference before official talks in New Delhi? No one knows for sure. But these things may resurface again. Having drawn the lines, mainly to show that Modi’s government is different from the previous UPA regime, going back on this may look silly. Or is it that the Pakistan has promised to do so only after the talks? No one knows for sure.

Lalit Mansingh has a reasonable explanation: “It has been a learning curve for Prime Minister Modi. He began with much enthusiasm, than took a hard line stand, and now has come back for talks. It’s fine; one has to give some allowance to a new prime minister on the job,” he said.

The former foreign secretary also believes that the key may lie in the Bangkok talks. It is justifiable to assume that the Pakistan side provided definite assurances on terrorism. Islamabad has promised to speed up the trial of Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi and other suspects of the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008, which has been progressing at a snail’s pace. Speedy trial of the perpetrators was also part of the joint statement issued by India and Pakistan after Swaraj met with Sartaj Aziz in Islamabad on Wednesday. This has been a sore point with India, as the families of the victims want closure.

The other point to dwell on is that while India is not talking directly to the Pakistan army, the NSA is a former army general. Retired general Nasir Janjua’s last job was chief of Southern Command, based in Quetta. He retired as recently as October. At the time he was to take over as the NSA, Pakistani papers saw his elevation to the post as another blow to Sharif in his battle against the army chief General Raheel Sharif.

But for India, this means that NSA Ajit Doval will deal with an interlocutor who has the backing of the powerful Pakistan army. India’s experience in dealing with Pakistan over decades has been that the civilian government’s commitments to India were often overruled by the army. There was much debate at one time in India that New Delhi should open a direct line to the Pakistan military, considering it is they who call the shots. “After the NSAs’ meet in Bangkok, the government here is of the view that the army is on board, and so this bolsters the prospects of peace,” said Lalit Mansingh.

For now, both India and Pakistan are on the same page. We have to wait and see what follows.

Updated Date: Dec 10, 2015 21:00:57 IST