Nursing a sore throat, Prime Minister Narendra Modi sat down to do a television interview just before campaigning for the 2014 Lok Sabha general election ended. His voice was hoarse, but the message clear. "Terror and talks," he told the interviewer when asked about his Pakistan policy, can't go hand in hand.
Speaking in Hindi, he added words to this effect: "Can you hear each other over the sound of gunfire?"
This Sunday (August 23), National Security Advisor Ajit Doval will host his Pakistani counterpart Sartaj Aziz (who is also Pakistan's foreign affairs advisor) in New Delhi for talks. Meanwhile, Pakistani Rangers have launched multiple attacks in Jammu and Kashmir across the Line of Control (LoC) and the International Border (IB). Nearly 20 Indians - jawans and civilians - have been killed, including women and children. Before this spate of ceasefire violations, terrorists supported by the Pakistan army had attacked police posts in Gurdaspur and Udhampur killing several policemen and injuring many more.
So what will Doval and Aziz talk about this coming Sunday?
Doval will hand over another dossier of Pakistani complicity in the recent terror attacks.
Aziz will raise Kashmir.
Doval will question the release of 26/11 mastermind Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi.
Aziz will raise Samjhauta and Aseemanand.
Doval will complain about constant ceasefire violations by Pakistan across the LoC and IB.
Aziz will raise Siachen and Sir Creek.
In this dialogue of the deaf, nothing concrete can emerge. Aziz will return to Pakistan on Monday, August 24, smug in the satisfaction that he has achieved what he set out to: establishing Pakistani credibility, equivalence and legitimacy.
Examine each. Every time India engages with Pakistan, it enhances Islamabad's credibility at home and internationally. Its army and proxies kill Indians and yet India sits across the table to talk to it, extending to it full diplomatic courtesies. Pakistan punches above its weight just as India punches well below its.
Equivalence, after credibility, is what Pakistan craves most. By raising Samjhauta, it seeks to downplay 26/11 though the scale and degree of the two attacks were vastly different. For Pakistan, parity with India is an obsession. It knows its economy is one-ninth India's, its annual GDP growth half India's. It also knows that homegrown terror outfits like the Tehreek-e-Taliban and the growing Baloch insurgency could cut its territory into half over the next decade. Clinging to the mirage of parity with India keeps the "idea of Pakistan" alive though its expiry date looms ever-closer.
The Pakistani army and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) treat talks with India as a means to legitimise such false equivalence. There is a school of thought in India which believes the Pakistani army has ratcheted up terror attacks and ceasefire violations because Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had weakened Pakistan's position in his meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Ufa, Russia. This line of thinking suggests that recent Pakistani attacks are meant to sabotage the NSA talks on Sunday. Pakistan's invitation to Hurriyat separatists to meet Sartaj Aziz during his visit to Delhi reinforces this belief.
In reality the Pakistani army wants talks-and-terror to go hand in hand. It will needle India with the pre-talks Hurriyat invitation, ceasefire violations and terror attacks. It knows that the peace constituency in India remains strong, even within the Modi government. This emboldens it to engage in grandstanding. With or without talks - if India is forced to cancel them - Pakistan establishes its relevance.
For a failed, rogue nation, that is an achievement - and an indictment of India's poorly crafted Pakistan policy.
The Pakistani view
Domestic opinion in Pakistan is sharply divided over India. Brainwashed by anti-Indian history books in school and anti-India propaganda in the media, most Pakistanis fear Indian hegemony. Equivalence, however mythical, is the opium the Pakistani establishment and media anaesthetises them with.
For the Pakistani army, a mix of terror and talks is exactly what it wants. It keeps India off-balance and domestic public opinion happy. Aid-givers China and the United States know the game Islamabad is playing with its talks-and-terror-go-together strategy. Both pay lip service to India's anger over Pakistan-sponsored terror attacks and ceasefire violations but advise calm. It suits Washington's and Beijing's realpolitik to keep a rising power like India in check.
Should Doval look forward to a meaningful dialogue with Aziz on Sunday? Or will it give Pakistan the global photo-op it craves - and claim the make-believe equivalence with India that it craves even more?
India's position is that by engaging with Pakistan, New Delhi can corner Islamabad on its terror agenda. That's wishful thinking. India has been engaging Pakistan in such talks to achieve just such an objective for a over a decade. It hasn't worked. Pakistan will not confine NSA level talks to terrorism. It will raise J&K, Siachen, Sir Creek, Balochistan, Karachi and Samjhauta.
So should India give Pakistan the opportunity it seeks to establish legitimacy and equivalence?
Pakistan is fighting home-bred terror as well as an escalating freedom movement in its largest province Balochistan. Continuing a structured dialogue with Pakistan gives Islamabad a veil of respectability to cloak its terrorism. India should instead concentrate on strengthening its economy and military, implementing the proposal to build a new high-tech fence on the LoC that will make infiltration much harder, enhancing its covert operational capability behind enemy lines, and isolating Pakistan internationally. Playing nice with Islamabad has always backfired. Doval and Prime Minister Modi know this.
C Christine Fair, assistant professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University's Edmund A Walsh School of Foreign Service, questions India's keenness to continue talking to Pakistan - and its futility. She explains how the United States has helped feed the false equivalence between India and Pakistan and what India's options are - beyond talks:
"Much of this coverage of the so-called India-Pakistan conflict is deeply problematic in that writers, perhaps with good intentions, seek to impose a false equivalence on both nations' conduct, giving the impression that India and Pakistan contribute equally to the fraught situation that currently exists.
"This is dangerously untrue and feeds into a policy-process that has failed to come to terms with the most serious problem in South Asia: Pakistan. Such coverage also rewards Pakistan for its malfeasance by attributing blame to India in equal share and thus legitimizing Pakistan's ill-found grievances. The only parties who benefit from such an understanding of the 'Indo-Pakistan' dispute are the Pakistan military and its terrorist proxies.
"Curiously, all of the factors that allow Pakistan to use non-state actors to coerce India with impunity in principle should allow India to do the same. However, India has been remarkably constrained in the face of decades of Pakistani provocation. Incidentally, few media accounts of this dispute acknowledge this… After all, India's own nuclear arsenal, larger conventional capabilities, large economy, and more reputable standing in the comity of nations arguably position it to reciprocate in similar ways. Pakistan has no paucity of ethnic, sectarian, and socio-economic fissures that could be exploited by Indian covert operations and funds. Moreover, India enjoys much better ties with all of Pakistan's neighbours with the exception of China and could easily be more aggressive in using these neighbouring states to return the favours that Pakistan has bestowed upon India since 1947. Yet it hasn't.
"The current government… seems less insouciant about Pakistan's behavior and seems more inclined to find ways of punishing Pakistan for such outrages and deterring it in the future. The country's National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, is a decorated veteran of India's intelligence community. This government, under Narendra Modi, responded very aggressively to shelling across the international border in Kashmir in the fall of 2014. Moreover, Doval very provocatively warned the Pakistanis that if they conduct another attack like Mumbai, Pakistan will lose Balochistan."
Doval is a hawk on Pakistan. So is the prime minister. Both though are pragmatic. They have responded robustly, as Christine Fair notes, to Pakistani ceasefire violations with "disproportionate" retaliation. Both men know where a red line, once drawn, must not be crossed.
When he meets Aziz, Doval should stop exchanging dossiers. His message should be short and sharp: "Last chance. After this, our guns will do the talking."