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Substance lies in talks and not in talks on talks

By TP Sreenivasan
February 08, 2010 16:23 IST
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The public mood is out of sync with any possibility of a compromise arising out of an Indo-Pak dialogue. But then the resumption of talks will ease the pressure on Islamabad to take action against the identified terrorists in Pakistan, argues TP Sreenivasan.

Nobody is opposed to talks with Pakistan, but there is something amiss in the way the whole new initiative has been handled in New Delhi.

A formal communication, apparently conveyed 10 days ago, by the foreign secretary to her counterpart in Islamabad was not in the public domain. Therefore, the story attributed to 'sources', based on Foreign Minister S M Krishna's statement in Kuwait came at the very moment when the 'terrorist conclave' (organised by the Jamaat-ud-Dawah in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir) was calling for India's blood.

Considering that India had distanced itself from the Sharm el-sheikh approach, the news came as a surprise.

News that came at the same time about Home Minister P Chidambaram visiting Islamabad to attend a SAARC meeting surprised many observers. "Was there a SAARC home ministers' meeting scheduled," I asked an analyst. "That can always be organised," was the answer.

It looked as though peace was breaking out. And it fell to the lot of the Nepalese home minister to spoil the fun by saying that he would not be available. SAARC meetings can be convened only if all the members can attend at the appropriate level.

For a whole day, it was not clear as to whether a formal proposal was made to Islamabad, even though vague reactions to an Indian proposal started appearing on the screen. I caught up with Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao at National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon's elegant farewell dinner for Governor M K Narayanan at the BSF officers' mess in Nizamuddin and got a confirmation that a proposal was, in fact, made.

For those who have followed the tortuous course the dialogue has taken from the subcontinent to Washington to Sharm el-sheikh to Kuwait, it is clear that Pakistan was moving heaven and earth to resume the dialogue while India was using it as a price for taking resolute action against the marauders of Mumbai. But by a quirk of circumstances, it now appears as though India is bending over backwards to resume the dialogue and Pakistan has the veto on its timing and agenda.

Ideally, the whole negotiation with Pakistan on the nature and timing of the dialogue should have been conducted confidentially and a statement should have come simultaneously from New Delhi and Islamabad, without revealing as to who proposed what and when.

The statements from Islamabad and from the Pakistan high commissioner in Delhi after his meeting with the foreign secretary make it appear as though Pakistan would have the talks their way and they would have it only if the composite dialogue itself is resumed, or at the least, Kashmir, water and terrorism are included in the agenda. Water is being mentioned prominently as Pakistan has been expressing concern over new dams and bridges being built in India having an impact on the flow of water to Pakistan.

Though the Indian proposal is not available, it looks as though there was a suggestion that the talks would be only on terrorism. In a triumphant tone, High Commissioner Shahid Malik said that Pakistan would also like to raise terrorism issues, recalling perhaps the reference to Baluchistan in the joint statement at Sharm el-sheikh.

In the game of scoring points, Pakistan has added another point on their scoreboard. We claimed credit for the initiative, but Pakistan would claim the credit for fixing the agenda in its favour.

The American hand was visible all over the place as the details of the exchange on talks became clear. Not long ago, the US Special Envoy, Richard Holbrooke, had stated that a major dilemma for the US in Afghanistan was to reconcile the conflicting security interests of its neighbouring countries like India and Pakistan.

The US had always wanted Pakistan to be rid of the India headache so that it could focus on the war on terror. No wonder that prompt encouragement came from Assistant Secretary Philip J Crowley, urging the two countries to "take appropriate steps so that tensions can be reduced, cooperation can be increased, and as a result, you have a more stable region that is focused on both interests that they share and threats that they share."

The substance lies in talks and not in talks on talks, but since the talks themselves are not likely to produce quick results, it is important that minute attention should be given to the preliminaries. If news about the Indian proposals had not come out till the finite points were finalised with Pakistan, no points would have been scored.

Pakistan is in no position to make progress in any talks, primarily because its leadership is in disarray and it is preoccupied with the war on terror that the US is closely monitoring.

Gone are the days when the two countries "had come to semicolons" on the Kashmir issue, as revealed by Steve Coll in the New Yorker. The public mood is also out of sync with any possibility of a compromise. But the resumption of talks will ease the pressure on Islamabad to take action against the identified terrorists in Pakistan. The link established by India between stern action against terrorists with the peace process will also melt away.

T P Sreenivasan, a former member of the Indian Foreign Service, was India's ambassador to the United Nations, Vienna, and governor for India, International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna.

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TP Sreenivasan