Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Why India and Pakistan won’t engage – at least, not yet

It is a familiar sight that India-Pakistan interactions raised hopes but only to end up as damp squib. In fact, that has been a well-established pattern, and the bleached landscape is littered with carcasses of India-Pakistan summit meetings.

But this is the first time ever that an important meet, contemplated at the level of the National Security Advisors, simply collapsed even before it could take place – in fact, just a day before it was to have taken place on August 23-24.

India insisted that Kashmir couldn’t figure in the talks, while Pakistan harped on Kashmir as the core issue in the relations between the two countries. The proposed talks finally collapsed since there was no meeting point on what to talk about.

Neither India nor Pakistan comes out of the debris looking elegant. They look like inebriated guys incapable of mature adult behavior. The United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has urged the two leaderships to “use all opportunities to resume talks at an early date”.

The meeting of the national security advisors was originally agreed upon between the two prime ministers – Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif – when they met on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Ufa on July 9.

Curiously, New Delhi and Islamabad seem to heave a sigh of relief that the meeting somehow got scuttled, finally. The big question, therefore, is why Modi and Sharif would have created this impasse in the first instance. Was the impasse inevitable?

Strange motivations work on the minds of politicians everywhere and in the case of India and Pakistan, given their tortuous history, domestic compulsions have always been a big factor.

Neither Modi nor Sharif, who, admittedly, run their governments on the basis of big electoral mandates, has anything worthwhile to show by way of ‘good governance’. Both lurch from one domestic controversy to the next.

Modi travelled to Ufa in July as an embattled leader amid serious allegations that his party colleagues, including a senior cabinet minister, were involved in corruption and acts of impropriety.

Modi is a smart politician who knows how to gerrymander public attention toward directions that suit his own interests. The ‘breakthrough’ with Pakistan in Ufa certainly took the Indian public by surprise, and, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin in the German fable, Modi led the way and the Indians followed the rat-catcher.

In retrospect, it is apparent that the decision to meet Sharif at Ufa itself could not have been a properly thought-through diplomatic initiative on Modi’s part. He probably hoped to garner praise for statesmanship that would somewhat ameliorate his tarnished or jaded image in the domestic opinion, and, conceivably, that was his principal political objective.

Quite obviously, right from the word ‘Go’, the right-wing Hindu nationalist forces and the hardliners in the Indian establishment began systematically debunking the Ufa understanding that India and Pakistan will seriously engage on the basis of their ‘common responsibility’ to work for peace in the sub-continent.

Modi, as usual, never cared to explain publicly why he did what he did in Ufa by meeting Sharif and making such a historic move out of the blue to discuss terrorism as a “common responsibility” with Pakistan instead of self-righteously blaming Pakistan as a state sponsoring terrorism.

Equally, on the Pakistani side, there was profound difficulty within the establishment to suspend the entrenched disbelief and imagine that Modi could be sincerely advocating a good-neighborly relationship with Pakistan.

No doubt, Modi, given his controversial political record as chief minister in Gujarat during the anti-Muslim riots in 2002, evokes strong feelings in the Pakistani mind. More than that, there is a deep-rooted perception in Pakistan that ultranationalist Hindu fundamentalist forces mentor the present government in India and they neither seek a friendly relationship nor wish Pakistan well.

Indeed, there was an inordinate delay of three weeks on the part of Islamabad even to respond to the Indian demarche on fixing the date of the meeting of the two national security advisors in New Delhi in late August.

Meanwhile, tensions on the border began cascading with both sides finger pointing at each other. India has alleged not less than 91 border ‘incidents’ instigated by Pakistan in the six-week period since the Ufa summit.

All in all, therefore, the conclusion that can be drawn at this point is that neither side was sincerely eager – or even prepared – to engage with the other in talks.

Both Modi and Sharif appear to have gone through the motions of cordiality and statesmanship at the Ufa meeting on July 9 but then, something must have changed during the weeks after they met. It stands to reason that the turning point must have come 20 days after they met in Ufa when on July 29 the Mullah Omar myth dissipated overnight with an abruptness that shook both New Delhi and Islamabad.

To go back in time, with the transition in Kabul in January to the leadership of President Ashraf Ghani, India had lost the ‘great game’ to Pakistan and there has been much bitterness evident in Delhi on that score. The security establishment, in particular, has been bristling.

On the other hand, when on July 29 it transpired that Mullah Omar was no more, a paradigm shift came about. The heart of the matter is that the India-Pakistan relationship is entangled today in regional politics, especially the AfPak scenario.

Suffice it to say, India will embark upon – that is, if it has not already – an earnest attempt to claw its way back on the greasy pole in Kabul, exploiting the disharmony that has erupted in Ghani’s equations with the Pakistani leadership over the Mullah Omar myth.

As Delhi would see it, its advantage really lies in engaging with Pakistan from a position of strength and regaining its lost influence in Kabul would enable it to leverage India-Pakistan tensions in its favor.

On the other hand, the paradigm shift has also altered the Pakistani calculus. Islamabad is acutely conscious today that it is back on ground zero in Kabul and if it engages with India at this point, it will be doing so from a position of ‘weakness’.

The disarray within the Taliban and the great uncertainties that face the AfPak question, what with the unraveling of the Taliban narrative as well as the sharp deterioration in the climate of Afghan-Pakistan relations – these have become major preoccupations for Pakistan.

Besides, Pakistan is perilously close today to losing its ‘centrality’ in the search of an Afghan settlement. Most important, the fragmentation of the Taliban insurgency is fraught with dangerous consequences for Pakistan’s national security. At the back of it all lies the specter that always haunted the Pakistani mind – India’s influence surging in Kabul.

A curious diplomatic pirouette began playing out during the weeks since July 29 with neither New Delhi nor Islamabad any longer desiring an engagement between the two countries just at the present juncture until there is clarity about the alignments in regional politics.

But having said that, neither side also wanted to be seen as responsible for scuttling the meeting proposed for late August because of its negative imagery. The two sides took to grandstanding in a big way, conducting their mutual ‘diplomacy’ almost exclusively via the media. Pakistan thrust the Kashmir issue into the forecourt, while India reacted by taking a fundamentalist stance.In a sense, the match has ended in a ‘draw’, so to speak, with both sides salvaging enough to crow about diplomatic ‘victory’.

But the good part is that neither side wants to be in a triumphalist mood, because they are also acutely conscious that the tensions in their mutual relationship may reach a flashpoint, which needs to be prevented, and for to end there is no option but to engage with each other.

Put differently, the two countries have kept the door ajar to hold talks in future, including in a near future. There is already incipient talk in Delhi regarding a meeting between Modi and Sharif on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in New York in a month’s time.

No doubt, Washington will encourage such a meeting. Modi is due to meet President Barack Obama in New York in late September. And Sharif is due to visit Washington on an official visit soon thereafter. Significantly, October is also going to be Obama’s ‘AfPak moment’ insofar as he is called upon to announce his final decision regarding the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Conceivably, any inordinate delay in the resumption of the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban cannot be in the American interests. Nor can Washington be in any two minds as regards the direct linkage between the search for a durable settlement in Afghanistan and India-Pakistan normalization. M.K. Bhadrakumar

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