Engage with Pakistan – but on India’s terms

In diplomacy, nations talk to all manner of undesirables.

 |  5-minute read |   03-03-2015
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Foreign secretary S Jaishankar arrived in Islamabad today (March 3), after hopping through Bangladesh and Bhutan on his SAARC yatra, to kick off India’s first foreign secretary (FS)-level talks with Pakistan since their abrupt cancellation last August. Several questions arise. First, by clubbing FS-level talks in Pakistan with the other SAARC countries what message is Prime Minister Narendra Modi sending to Islamabad and Rawalpindi general headquarters? Second, in what way will the new PDP-BJP government in Jammu and Kashmir, representing a rare regional and ideological alliance in the troubled Valley, change the dynamic between India and Pakistan which regards Kashmir as the “core” dispute between the two countries?

Third, what will be the role of the Hurriyat in the radically changed political environment in the Kashmir Valley?

The answer to the first question is complex. India cancelled FS-level talks in August 2014 when Pakistan’s high commissioner Abdul Basit brazenly met Hurriyat separatists just before the visit of then foreign secretary Sujatha Singh to Islamabad.

In subsequent months, Pakistani Rangers mounted heavy artillery fire along the Line of Control (LoC) and the International Border (IB) causing casualties on both sides. India for the first time retaliated with lethal force. Pakistani Rangers suffered several fatalities. The LoC and IB have been relatively quiet since, though Pakistan continues to use small arms fire as cover for terrorists to slip through the electrified fence.

The prime minister had made it clear during his Lok Sabha election campaign that “talks and terror” don’t go together. Can you talk when there is gunfire around you, he had asked in one television interview. And yet, the prime minister is a pragmatist. Once the Border Security Force had established red lines and quietened Pakistani guns on the LoC and IB, the door to outcome-focused talks with Pakistan opened.

By clubbing Jaishankar’s visit to Islamabad with the other SAARC countries, India has simultaneously de-hyphenated itself with Pakistan and made multilateralism rather than bilateralism the fulcrum of its foreign policy in South Asia. Engagement with Pakistan resumes but on Indian terms under a broad subcontinental penumbra.

The answer to the second question is even more nuanced. The PDP-BJP government in Jammu and Kashmir is a calculated gamble by a prime minister who assesses risk and reward carefully.

The risk is allowing the PDP’s pro-Pakistan bluster to alienate the BJP’s core constituency. The rewards are many: Reconciling Jammu with Kashmir; taking the sting out of Pakistan’s propaganda that “Muslim” Kashmir is a misfit in Hindu-majority India; bringing peace to a Valley torn apart by violence for over 25 years; and integrating Kashmir into India through economic development.

These rewards will depend on how the PDP’s leadership, not known for great sagacity, conducts itself. Chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed (who I interviewed in Srinagar when he was chief minister in the 2002-08 PDP-Congress government) is a stubborn man prone to making provocative statements such as the one last Sunday crediting Pakistan for a violence-free J&K election. But even the Mufti knows that this is his last opportunity to make historic changes in the Valley.

Above all, J&K needs central funds for development. The Modi government would be wise to dispense these in tranches over the next few years to ensure maximum governance and minimum mischief from the PDP as J&K moves closer to India’s economic growth model rather than Pakistan’s broken sectarian model.

The answer to the final question relates to the role of the Hurriyat. Separatists are Pakistan’s paid agent provacateurs. Mufti wants to engage with them. The BJP will have to tread carefully here: Talk to the Hurriyat but, as with Pakistan, set the terms of engagement.

In diplomacy, nations talk to all manner of undesirables. The United States engages with North Korea and Iran even though it has diplomatic relations with neither. So engage with Pakistan and the Hurriyat – as the Vajpayee government did in the past – but set the agenda. Easier said than done? Not necessarily. In an op-ed some years ago in The Times of India titled "Terms of Re-engagement", I wrote what a dialogue with Pakistan should entail:

“To win the peace you must first possess the means to win a war. India has those means and they immeasurably strengthen its negotiating position. But while talks with Pakistan are necessary, they must serve one clear purpose: A permanent end to state-sponsored terrorism by Pakistan. From this will emerge a modus vivendi on Kashmir and water, closer economic cooperation, stronger trade ties, easier travel and more people-to-people contacts.

Peace is a prize to be won for the entire subcontinent. It is a prize necessary for India to allow it to pursue its expanding global agenda without being distracted by a renegade neighbour. And it is necessary for Pakistan so that it can extricate itself from decades of misguided military adventurism and state-sponsored terrorism that have cost so many innocent lives.

Talking to Pakistan is vital for long-term peace in the subcontinent. But peace, like any other prize worth winning, carries collateral obligations. It is, for instance, the constitutional obligation of a government to protect its citizens and, in the event of a terrorist attack against them, bring the perpetrators to book. The prime minister, as his government re-engages Pakistan across a raft of issues, must honour that principal obligation by ensuring that terrorists like Hafiz Saeed and Dawood Ibrahim are brought swiftly to justice.

Pakistan’s decades-long attempt to acquire parity with India is over. Despite the Pakistani army’s braggadocio, its deployment of over 1,00,000 troops in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (formerly known as the North West Frontier Province) has significantly weakened both its fighting capabilities on the LoC and its morale. The economic disparity between the two countries is growing. India’s GDP is now nearly ten times Pakistan’s. Power shortages are crippling industry and everyday life in Pakistan. The entire country generates less electricity on average a day than Maharashtra alone and faces a daily shortfall of nearly 4,000 mw.”

Foreign secretary Jaishankar is one of India’s most astute diplomats. Son of the late distinguished strategic affairs expert K Subrahmanyam (a contributing editor to one of my magazines till his untimely demise in February 2011), Jaishankar will have a full agenda on his table in Islamabad on March 3 after having held talks in Bangladesh and Bhutan.

Next stop in the SAARC yatra? Afghanistan. The message will be heard loud and clear in Rawalpindi and Islamabad by both General Raheel Sharif and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif: This is where Pakistan stands in the pecking order of India’s new foreign policy.


Minhaz Merchant Minhaz Merchant @minhazmerchant

The writer is the biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla. He is a media group chairman and editor. He is the author of The New Clash of Civilizations

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