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Column: India, Pak pad up for a new innings

By Suhasini Haidar
January 24, 2010 15:07 IST
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A likely meeting of foreign ministers and a flurry of track-II initiatives are signs that the two countries may be readying for a new round of talks.

Even gods have their moments of doubt - of coming up against seemingly insurmountable odds. And it would seem that cricket, one of the subcontinent's most venerated gods, may have met such a match in the current India-Pakistan détente. Politicians in Pakistan and cricket- lovers in India alike have decried the IPL auction that rejected every Pakistani player up for bids, disappointed that team owners were unable to overcome visa fears and security risks to transcend borders. "Cricket, after all," wrote in one agitated viewer, "has no political boundaries." But it does.

And to assume that it should be able to overlook them would be to give the sport a much greater leadership role in solving bilateral problems than it deserves, or indeed should aspire to.

Fortunately for those disappointed fans, there are several signs that India and Pakistan may be padding up for a new round of engagement, which could possibly change the atmospherics in time for IPL-4. Last week Foreign Minister S M Krishna picked up the phone to dial his Pakistani counterpart S M Qureshi, to greet him on the occasion of the New Year and to push for progress in the Mumbai attack investigations.

That's something he didn't do just two months ago when the two were in the same city - Port-of-Spain - for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in November, and they were staying in hotels across the road from each other.

The two foreign ministers are going to be in the same city next week as well, when they meet at the Afghan donors' conference in London, and are likely to talk about more than the region's problems. Another sign is the flurry of track-2 initiatives between activists, aided by two major newspapers on both sides of the border.

And finally, a new line is expected following the exit of National Security Adviser M K Narayanan, a man known for tough talking on Pakistan, who has been replaced by a diplomat known for his ability to talk to the Pakistani leadership - former foreign secretary Shiv Shankar Menon.

In the 14 months that have transpired since the dialogue process was suspended after the Mumbai attacks, other factors have come into play – in India, a growing belief that not talking to Pakistan is not necessarily a bad thing. A year without any major terror attacks has been seen as proof that the 'value-add' benefit of talking is not that high. In Pakistan, there's a similar fatigue - and also a smugness - that talks will be a US-aided process, particularly given the growing dependence the Obama administration has shown on Islamabad, as it tries to solve the Af-Pak tangle. Both Qureshi and Krishna separately stated that there would be no point in meeting for the sake of a 'photo-op' alone.

The one upside of not talking this past year, though, is that when the two sides do finally resume their dialogue, they don't have to return to the old dialogue, and can instead revise the process. The eight-pronged composite dialogue is not dead as much as it has passed its expiration date.

The benefits that accrued from nearly five rounds and a decade of engagement notwithstanding, it is time to graduate to the next stage, where the two countries put aside the issues that they have made some progress on: Siachen, Sir Creek,Wullar/Tulbul, economic cooperation, and friendly exchanges in various fields, that can all be resolved in due course. That leaves confidence building measures, Jammu and Kashmir, and terrorism and drug trafficking.

In short: Kashmir and terror.

Any new engagement that the two sides embark on can start chipping away at the two core issues that bedevil relations the most. On Kashmir, both Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and former President Musharraf have admitted that they came close to a 'non-territorial' solution through the back-channel by 2006, when Pakistan's domestic politics stalled them.

The withdrawal of Army battalions from the valley this January and initiating of talks with Hurriyat leaders show that the process, at least for India, continues to be worked on. On terror, it will be important to follow the trial of the Mumbai attack suspects, but any real crackdown will only come when Pakistan sees that the terror groups it raised to attack India are the same ones that threaten Pakistan today.

In the interim, violence levels will continue to rise with every fresh initiative for dialogue. Perhaps the best indicators of a move towards talks are the recent rash of exchanges of fire across the border, infiltration attempts, and the resurgence of planned attacks in the valley. During the Lal Chowk siege, according to tapes broadcast on
CNN-IBN, militants were even told by their handlers that their mission was to "breathe life into the dead of horse of the insurgency".

The author is deputy foreign affairs editor, CNN-IBN


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Suhasini Haidar
Source: source