By Ashok K Mehta
The Union Government’s ostensible muscular policy failed to coerce Pakistan into reining in terrorists; instead it undermined Modi’s widely heralded Neighbourhood First policy. He must now be flexible with Nepal too.
At the 13th India-Pakistan Track II uninterrupted annual dialogue at Bangkok in October 2015, prime-time was utilised towards evolving a formula to break the deadlock in the official dialogue disrupted since August 2014. Panelists from both sides were united in calling for talks to resume at the earliest. Following considerable brain-racking, it was suggested that the impasse over the dialogue grounded over ‘New Delhi’s condition of terrorism first’ (and Kashmir later) could be resolved through a compromise: Discussing terrorism and Kashmir simultaneously even if it were optically sequential. An Indian opposition Congressman at the conference pounced on the envisaged climbdown by the Government and said his party would extract its political pound of flesh in Parliament when the time came.
What happened at Hotel Novotel Bangkok last Sunday was the Government’s surprise U-turn in lowering the bar for talks, which has opened the door for resuming the institutionalised dialogue frozen since January 2013 after the beheading of a soldier on the LoC. The Government’s macho line spawned the dangerous idea that not talking to Pakistan was a viable option. Disallowing Pakistani interlocutors from consulting the Hurriyat and following the Indian agenda of first clearing pending issues relating to cross-border terrorism and prosecuting the perpetrators of 26/11 became virtual pre-conditions to moving on other subjects in the composite dialogue including Kashmir.
It is instructive to review in the order listed the eight subjects in the composite dialogue — peace and security, including CBMs; Jammu and Kashmir; Siachen Glacier; Sir Creek, Tulbul/Wullar, Baglihar and Kishanganga; terrorism and drug trafficking; economic and commercial cooperation; promotion of friendly exchanges in various fields. Only the first two subjects were to be handled by the Foreign Secretaries. Between 2004 and 2008, four and a half rounds of talks were held, with the fifth round slated in Pakistan when 26/11 happened and dialogue was suspended. In 2010, talks got revived but renamed as ‘resumed dialogue’, of which two and a half rounds were held till the beheading of the Indian soldier halted the dialogue. The resumed dialogue equated terrorism with Jammu & Kashmir and Siachen, Sir Creek and water became priority subjects.
The National Security Advisors were brought into the talks for the first time at Ufa to enlarge the canvas of terrorism and utilise the inveterate security skills of Mr Ajit Doval. The meeting at New Delhi was aborted due to India sticking to its interpretation of the Ufa agreement hurriedly drafted by the two Foreign Secretaries. This fiasco, among other reasons, prompted Pakistan Army chief General Raheel Sharif in having one of his own Generals — recently retired Lt Gen Naseer Khan Janjua of the Punjab Regiment who had earned laurels in subduing the insurgency in Balochistan — appointed as National Security Advisor. That has left Mr Sartaj Aziz as the de facto Foreign Minister and Mr Tariq Fatemi as Mr Sharif’s foreign policy advisor.
Eighteen months have been lost by the Government attempting to alter the parameters for talks. The speed with which the Bangkok ice-breaker was fixed is impressive. On November 30, Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif met on the sidelines of the Paris climate change summit, and four days later the two NSAs along with their delegations were confabulating on a Sunday at Bangkok. Credit for the breakthrough must go to Mr Sharif, who has been making the right noises on resuming dialogue while internationalising Kashmir. At this September’s UNGA, he came up with his own four-point formula on Kashmir: Sanctifying the 2003 Cease Fire Agreement and restoring the role of the UNMOGIP; steps to demilitarise Kashmir; renunciation of use of force and unconditional and mutual withdrawal from Siachen.
At the Commonwealth Heads meet at Malta last month, he offered to resume dialogue with India unconditionally but few in New Delhi took him seriously. The talks at Bangkok were realised following back-channel conversations in New Delhi. The hurried Bangkok meeting was imperative for easing External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s passage to Islamabad to attend the Istanbul Heart of Asia ministerial meeting hosted by Pakistan, which is vital for India’s continued relevance to Afghanistan. She is the first Cabinet Minister in this Government to visit Pakistan. The Heart of Asia initiative started as a Track II with CBMs aimed at creating a regional cooperative mechanism of 14 neighbouring countries dedicated to making Afghanistan a trade, energy and connectivity hub. India heads one of the six CBMs — trade, commerce and investment opportunities — and is committed to peace, prosperity and stability of Afghanistan. Islamabad has consistently accused India of using Afghan soil for fomenting terrorism in Balochistan and arming the Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan. It has doggedly refused to include Afghanistan as an additional ninth item in the structured bilateral dialogue saying any interaction with New Delhi would legitimise its role in Afghanistan. That is why Ms Swaraj’s presence for the Heart of Asia conference in Pakistan is symbolically vital.
How did the Bangkok breakthrough with Pakistan finally materialise? Who blinked first? And why did India relent on the pre-conditions it had set? Has Mr Sharif’s patience with India worked? Although the meeting in Bangkok obviated any contact between the Hurriyat and the Pakistan delegation, it violated Ms Swaraj’s ruling that future talks would not be held in a third country. It was New Delhi that warmed up to Mr Sharif’s offer of unconditional talks. This was followed up with a quiet back channel between Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit and Mr Doval culminating in Bangkok. International and domestic pressure played its part. The Government was significantly impressed by its assessment that the Pakistan Army was supportive of the dialogue given it had managed to instal its nominee as the NSA. New Delhi had to compromise on sequencing of terrorism and Kashmir by following the principle of simultaneity.
Mr Sharif has emerged a clear winner twice over. Not only did he break the ice with Mr Modi in Paris but he also succeeded in urging President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan to resume the stalled reconciliation process with Taliban, which is expected to re-start this week. The Government’s ostensible muscular policy failed to coerce Pakistan into reining in terrorists; instead it undermined Mr Modi’s widely heralded Neighbourhood First policy. He must now be flexible with Nepal too, where his popularity has plummeted.