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How not to hold India-Pakistan talks

Shekhar Gupta
Shekhar GuptaAug 22, 2015 | 00:41

How not to hold India-Pakistan talks

It is among the oldest rules of diplomacy that negotiations, particularly at higher levels, must be kept at a low key, even boring, level, unless you reach one of two situations: an agreement or a breakdown. Or, when you specifically wish to make a point. Negotiations between significant neighbours can't be held like a T20 cricket match with a strategic timeout, which is where the NSA-level talks between India and Pakistan are tonight.

Before each makes further moves tomorrow, three points they will need to think about:

1. What is this round of talks about? Is it to resolve all, or even one, of our outstanding issues?

2. Is it about calming down relations or merely restating our respective positions on these issues, including terrorism and Kashmir?

3. Is it about merely restoring a broken political contact or petty point-scoring?

If looked at calmly, each side will have the same answers to these questions.

1. These talks are not to resolve anything, possibly no more than yet another fishermen exchange kind of thing.

2. These are, indeed, about calming things down between India and Pakistan. Or, at least beginning the process of calming things down.

3. It can't be about petty point-scoring. That India and Pakistan can do any time anyway. Both prime ministers did not run into each other by coincidence. Both wanted to restore contact. Which is what this round of talks is about.

With such minimalistic expectations, it is silly in the extreme that both sides have reduced this to an unedifying state of waffling and name-calling.

Pakistan was being, well, Pakistan when it brought back the Hurriyat card again. There could no motivation behind this except to embarrass the government of India, given the recent history of the cancellation of foreign secretary-level talks precisely for this reason. Petty elements in the Pakistani establishment looked for a chance to score a point.

On the Indian side, having taken the lead to resume talks, the return of the Hurriyat irritant should have been anticipated and a response gamed accordingly. A firm diplomatic message should have been sent to Pakistan. And if it wasn't heeded - as was likely - a proper party line should have been finessed by diplomats. Instead, it's now been left to party spokesmen who are fighting the same old verbal battles with Pakistani talking heads.

In the process, the environment is being vitiated on both sides.

For Pakistan, India's sensitivity on the Hurriyat is well-known. If the Pakistani establishment did not have the courage or willingness to defy the entrenched lobbies that want to drag Kashmir into everything, frankly, they should not have agreed to these talks in the first place. But having agreed, they should have weighed the costs of bringing in the Hurriyat factor.

The Hurriyat never represented the Kashmiri point of view by itself. It was, at best, one strong point of view. Now even that is not the case. It is a caricature of the political force it used to be. Most of its members are seen as compromised, good-time guys monetising their politics on either side. Revelations in the recent Dulat book have done further damage to them.

It is tragic Pakistan still finds it worth its while to risk ruining a contact restored after more than a year for their sake. It is equally disappointing India is not willing to laugh it away, saying something like, anybody who has a visa to come to India can meet any Indian citizen. But then, you have to answer prime-time inquisitions.

Governments can't function like that. Both India and Pakistan have upwards of a hundred nuclear weapons. India is the fourth largest armed machine in the world, Pakistan the fifth or sixth, depending on how you calculate. All states antagonistic to each other keep active contact with each other. It is not only to their own respective benefit, but also an international responsibility in a globalised environment.

But these couple of days have shown it is not realistic to expect such maturity from either side. We can keep debating who is right or wrong or who is more wrong, but it will have no meaning.

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi says, all issues are ultimately settled with talks. So talks must go on. But given the kind of juvenility in our public debate, it is better that henceforth these talks continue away from cameras and public attention, even in secret, and definitely in foreign locations.

It has been done in the past, even between the Vajpayee and Musharraf governments, and it seems the only thing that can survive the vicious bitterness of our public debate.

Last updated: August 24, 2015 | 16:11
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