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BRP Bhaskar: India-Pakistan talks are on again
December 15, 2015
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

Prime Minister Narendra Modi confounded fans and foes alike when he got off the high horse he was riding and gave the nod for resumption of India-Pakistan talks and their elevation to the level of a “comprehensive bilateral dialogue”.

Modi had assumed office a year and a half ago in the presence of heads of governments of all South Asian nations, including Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan, raising hopes of a new era of good neighbourliness in the region. Things went awry when he called off scheduled Foreign Secretary-level talks between the two countries in New Delhi to demonstrate his displeasure at the Pakistan High Commissioner’s confabulations with Kashmir’s dissident Hurriyat leaders.

Thereafter, falling back on the traditional Bharatiya Janata Party position, Modi insisted that the two sides should talk about terrorism first. A statement issued after Modi and Sharif met during the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit at Ufa, Russia, said National Security Advisers of the two countries would meet in New Delhi to discuss terrorism.

Sharif came under heavy attack at home for agreeing to a statement which did not mention Jammu and Kashmir, which Pakistan considers the core issue. Islamabad called off the meeting after India placed Hurriyat leaders under house arrest to prevent their travelling to New Delhi to meet Pakistan’s NSA, Sartaj Aziz.

With the two sides standing firm on publicly stated positions under domestic compulsions, an early end of the stalemate appeared unlikely. But, then, the NSAs met secretly at Bangkok, along with the Foreign Secretaries, on December 6 and announced they had discussed “peace and security, terrorism, Jammu and Kashmir and other issues, including tranquillity along the line of control”.

The breakthrough followed an unscheduled meeting between Modi and Sharif, who were in Paris for the Climate summit. There they agreed on a formula which accommodated the wishes of both sides. The NSAs met and discussed terrorism and the Foreign Secretaries met and discussed Kashmir, and the stand-off ended.

One-upmanship has been an essential part of India-Pakistan relations in the recent past. Observers on both sides sought an answer to question as to who had blinked first.

Indian analysts were of the view that New Delhi showed more flexibility than Islamabad. A report quoted former Foreign Secretary Lalit Mansingh as saying India had given up the stand that it would only talk terrorism and nothing else. Modi wanted to take a tough line on terrorism and at the same time prove to the world that he was more pragmatic than dogmatic, and in the process he was sending confusing signals to the Indian public, he said.

Alluding to the way the BJP, while in the opposition, had obstructed efforts at normalisation of relations with Pakistan, former ambassador MK Bhadrakumar observed it was some natural justice that the party was forced to eat its own vomit, ironically, with Modi as the master of ceremonies.

Another former ambassador TP Sreenivasan wrote that Pakistan had won this round. Modi fans attacked him in the social media.

The fact is that Pakistan, too, took a step or two backward. It went back on the repeatedly articulated position that Kashmir is the primary issue and agreed to resumption of talks at the level of NSAs.

A host of factors, including some whose roots lie beyond the subcontinent, appears to have contributed to the softening of the attitudes of the Indian and Pakistani governments which made the breakthrough possible.

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Islamabad on December 10 for the annual meeting of the 14-member Heart of Asia conference on regional cooperation in Afghanistan. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is committed to attend the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation summit in Islamabad next year. Strained relationship with Pakistan does not bar Indian leaders from attending regional meetings held in that country, but it is sure to limit their interactions.

Observers believe the United States exerted pressure on India and Pakistan to start talking as good relations between the two countries is critical to its plans for Afghanistan.

Some link Islamabad’s changed stance also to the emergence of Army chief General Raheel Sharif as a key player in Pakistan’s foreign relations. An army officer close to him, Lt-Gen Nasir Khan Janjua, replaced Sartaj Aziz as NSA recently.

While resumption of dialogue is a welcome development, optimism over its outcome has to be tempered by the fact that the peace process is in the hands of security experts with limited diplomatic experience.

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