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Talking without negotiating: One meeting, two agendas

By B Raman
February 24, 2010 14:41 IST
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Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao and her Pakistani counterpart Salman Bashir will be meeting in New Delhi on February 25 under a face-saving formula which would enable both the governments to claim that the respective stand taken by them after the 26/11 terrorist strike in Mumbai stands vindicated by this meeting.

The Indian stand was that the formal composite dialogue on various bilateral issues including Pakistani claims to Jammu & Kashmir, which was suspended by New Delhi after the terror attacks, cannot be resumed unless and until Islamabad took effective action against the Pakistan-based conspirators of the 26/11 attacks and the terrorist infrastructure of the anti-India terrorist organisations, particularly the Lashkar-e-Tayiba, which orchestrated the attacks.

By circumventing, with the United States' backing, the Pakistani demand for a formal resumption of the composite dialogue and by seeking to keep the meeting between the two foreign secretaries confined to a discussion on the action taken by Pakistan against terrorism, India can claim that its position on the composite dialogue remains unchanged.

The Pakistani stand was that progress on action against terrorism should not be tied to the composite dialogue, and that terrorist acts should not be allowed to come in the way of the composite dialogue.

By insisting, again with US backing, that while it was prepared for a face-to-face meeting under the format proposed by India, it reserved to itself the right to raise, during the meeting, issues other than terrorism such as Kashmir and its allegation of Indian non-adherence to past agreements on the sharing of river waters, Islamabad can claim that it has not relented from the position taken by it after 26/11.

The result will be one meeting on February 25 with two agendas -- with each foreign secretary sticking to his or her own agenda while not disallowing the agenda of the other. Since this is unlikely to produce any meaningful results, there has been an understanding in advance of the meeting that there will be no joint statement and no joint media briefing.

Each foreign secretary will give to the media of his or her country his or her version of the discussions.

Pakistan is not going to face any dilemma because it has always been its stand that the continuance of the composite dialogue should not be tied to India's satisfaction over the action taken by it against terrorism. Action on terrorism and the dialogue on other contentious issues should move simultaneously without the one being made conditional on the other.

The government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee had insisted on this linkage and made Pakistani General Pervez Musharraf accept it when the two met in Islamabad in January 2004.

Vajpayee agreed to the composite dialogue in return for Musharraf's commitment that Pakistan would not allow any territory under its control to be used for acts of terrorism against India.

This linkage came in the way of Pakistan continuing to use terrorism as a strategic weapon against India to bring about a change in the status quo in Kashmir.

Shortly after Vajpayee pressured Musharraf to accept this linkage, his party lost the election and a Congress-led coalition headed by Dr Manmohan Singh came to office.

Since then, the Pakistani governments -- first the one headed by Gen Musharraf and then the present one headed by President Asif Ali Zardari -- have been trying to wriggle out of this linkage without meeting much resistance from Dr Manmohan Singh.

In the attempt to wriggle out of this linkage, Musharraf scored Pakistan's first success at his meeting with Dr Manmohan Singh at Havana in September 2006, and Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani took this success further at his meeting with Dr Singh at Sharm-el-Sheikh in July, 2009, at which Dr Singh practically conceded Pakistan's point of view that there should not be any linkage.

The consequent furore in India, including in sections of his own Congress party, over his perceived concessions to Gilani and over his not resisting a reference to Pakistani allegations regarding India's role in Balochistan in the joint statement, made the Sharm-el-Sheikh agreement a non-starter.

Dr Singh wriggled out of the Sharm-el-Sheikh agreement not because he realised that he was wrong to have conceded Pakistan's point of view, but because he was taken aback by the public outcry against the concessions made by him to Pakistan.

As the two foreign secretaries meet, the question that assumes importance is whether New Delhi will now try to restore the linkage between Pakistani action against terrorism and progress in the composite dialogue on other issues.

One can hope for India insisting on the restoration of this linkage only if one sees signs that Dr Manmohan Singh has now come to be convinced that such a linkage is necessary.

One sees no such sign. The opposition parties and those critical of Dr Singh's soft attitude towards Pakistan's inadequate action against anti-India terrorism should insist that the composite dialogue should not be resumed unless and until this linkage established in January 2004 is restored.

The continued absence of the composite dialogue need not necessarily mean the absence of political and official interactions on other issues of importance, such as mutual legal assistance between the investigating agencies of the two countries, transit trade between India and Afghanistan through Pakistani territory, normalisation of bilateral trade etc.

Expanding the network of official level contacts on issues unconnected with terrorism and maintaining our insistence on the linkage between Pakistani action against terrorism and resumption of the composite dialogue should be our objective.

The writer is Additional Secretary (retired), Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai

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B Raman