This is Not Diplomacy But a Battle of Perceptions and Postures

Right now, each side seems to behave as if it has no interest in peace and that it is the other side which is desperate for talks

Had the poet Ahmed Faraz been alive he would certainly have drawn this beautiful verse from his quiver to describe the current state of relations between India and Pakistan:

pehle se maraasim na sahi phir bhi kabhi to
rasm-o-rahe duniya hi nibhaane ke liye aa

Our relationship may not be the same now, but even if infrequently
Let us at least meet to fulfil the rituals and traditions of the world.

Unfortunately, the two countries do not seem interested even in dialogue as the fulfilment of a ritual. They would much rather talk at each other via the media in order to appear stronger to their respective sides. There was much consternation in Delhi over Islamabad’s decision to meet Hurriyat leaders before the August 23-24 talks between Sartaj Aziz and Ajit Doval, and its desire to raise the Kashmir issue too.  In response to India’s ultimatum over these issues, Pakistan decided to cancel the talks. There is today no clarity on when the two National Security Advisors will try to meet again.

At Ufa in July this year, both sides signed an agreement to “take collective responsibility to ensure peace and promote development”. For this, they said they agreed that they were prepared “to discuss all outstanding issues.” The statement said the two sides “also agreed” to take a number of steps, including holding a meeting in Delhi on terrorism.

Chronicle of a failure foretold

In my first article for The Wire, written before Ufa, I had argued that relations between India and Pakistan are only going to get worse. Ufa did not change things because both sides were not on the same page when it came to interpreting the document, or deciding how they intended to use the joint statement.

Had the Indian government paid attention, it might have realised earlier that Islamabad may have agreed to talk about terrorism but was not ready to not talk about Kashmir. In fact, immediately upon his return to Pakistan from Ufa, Aziz tried to dispel the impression that Pakistan had abandoned the Kashmir issue. Many commentators rapped Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the NSA on their knuckles for the perceived sin of diverging from what was considered important by the military establishment. His critics savaged him as a man more obsessed with eating Lahori food — nulli nihari and siri paya – than protecting national interest. The old myth of Nawaz Sharif’s limited concentration span for serious matters began doing the rounds again, along with how he and the other Sharif – Raheel, the Army chief – were not on the same page in resolving the crisis of relationship.

India’s security community is quite conscious of Pakistan’s civil-military divide and that Raheel Sharif is in the driving seat as far as relations with India are concerned. Pakistan’s army is a powerful player with a capacity to impact current public perception. Nawaz was not ready to give up on the Kashmir cause, even if he may have been willing to relegate the issue to the back burner. But the risk of being projected as an enemy of the state and compromising on core national interests is not an attractive proposition, especially for a prime minister. Delhi surely knew about the peculiar distribution of power in Pakistan. It had the time to understand that Islamabad will talk about terrorism as long as it can also discuss Kashmir. Why was it expected that Kashmir would not be brought up at Delhi? In any case, since this was to be the first NSA-level meeting, it would have been natural for both sides to discuss—and agree or disagree over—modalities for further talks. It was not as if a final decision on Kashmir was to be taken on August 23-24.

Shoddy diplomacy at Ufa

The big mystery, of course, is why the Pakistani NSA and his team did not insist on including Kashmir as a sixth point in the main text at Ufa. Was it just a slip up or was the foreign office team in a hurry to create an impression that it was open to talks on terrorism only? While John Kerry had telephoned both Islamabad and Delhi to bring the temperature down before Ufa, why did Pakistan hurriedly agree to an agenda it was not interested in? Given the rising tension in the region, particularly on the Line of Control, it was in the interest of both states to talk. At Ufa, India had softened its earlier position of not talking without Pakistan first demonstrating a resolve to counter India-related terrorism. This meant Delhi was equally interested to engage. There was no reason why Pakistan should not have inserted Kashmir into the agreement. To argue that a weak prime minister tried a diplomatic counter-coup on the military is nothing but loose talk. For Aziz, not discussing Kashmir even in a small way at Delhi would have meant agreeing to relegate an issue that is of utmost importance to the powerful establishment. It was shoddy diplomacy and Islamabad is paying the price for it.

The problem with any formal talks between the two neighbours is the abnormally high expectations of a breakthrough each time—almost analogous to expectations of the doubling of an investment but without actually making the right kind of investment or the right calculations. If they want a positive outcome, Islamabad and New Delhi ought to build some bridges through a potent Track-II before attempting talks at the NSA level. But more importantly, both sides must be prepared to stop presenting talks as an ultimate end point in their media briefings. Dialogue will take years of consistent effort and clarity on objectives. What is most critical, however, is ownership of the peace initiative. Right now, each side seems to behave as if it has no interest in peace and that it is the other side which is desperate for talks.

India’s calculations

In fact, the way India and Pakistan conduct peace negotiations shows how the two sides view each other’s fighting capacity at a given point of time.

There is a perception in India, for instance, that it can get a better deal from a Pakistan that has its back to the wall. Islamabad is economically weaker, has a bad reputation of aiding and abetting terrorists like Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar, and seems to be at cross purposes with western peace initiatives in Afghanistan. The prediction of Pakistan’s possible economic collapse and isolation means that Delhi could capture a better deal at the appropriate time and with the right amount of diplomatic and military pressure. Islamabad’s relations with Washington are part of the calculation. Delhi may have made a note of the US stopping counter-terrorism aid to Pakistan and assumed the neighbour-enemy is about to be ostracised by the West, especially America. Add to this perception Narendra Modi’s image as a tough talker—a man who does not want to be seen making concessions—and last week’s denouement becomes easier to understand. Of course, an outcome that may be rational from a realpolitik standpoint is not necessarily a helpful one, least of all for a PM who wants to turn India into an economic miracle and thus has higher stakes in regional peace.

Modi’s need for peace is certainly on the minds of Pakistan’s establishment. The Indian NSA may be tempted to take the advice of some international strategic adventurers that India should teach Pakistan a lesson through limited military strikes across the border. There is an on-going debate in certain circles regarding the possibility and potential of limited warfare. The underlying assumption is that Pakistan’s military is a rational actor and will back down and not escalate matters further. Besides, the US and China would become active in limiting further fireworks. But Modi’s India should be aware that even the remotest possibility of conflict escalation may prove costly.

Pakistan’s terror card

Islamabad feels under no moral obligation to pack up the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and its entire network because it believes it now has a stronger case to argue that Delhi is playing the terrorism card too. It also believes it is not isolated in terns of selling this perception nationally or internationally. Although the allegations that MQM leader Altaf Hussain was funded by India’s R&AW are far from proved, there are far too many journalists in Britain who confidently talk about seeing evidence that links Hussain with India. Yes, not one journalist but several, some of whom have clearly got their information not from Pakistani but British sources. As for holding hard evidence  that can be proven in a court of law, neither side has needed that before in its war of words. The MQM case has certainly given a lease of life to Pakistan’s claim and perception that India supports terrorism in Pakistan. Suddenly, all Taliban terrorists are being described as India’s produce.

Such perceptions, also fuelled by Narendra Modi’s recent speech in Dhaka staking Indian ownership of the creation of Bangladesh, give Pakistan enough to play with and argue about a real threat from the ‘humsaya dushman’. All this makes it all the more intriguing that Pakistan added its signature to the Ufa statement. The fear of going into negotiations and getting shortchanged is only too apparent.

At the moment, the only stakeholder in peace is a certain segment of civil society that seems to be shrinking rapidly.

Note: This article originally published here.