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India-Pakistan: Dialogue without direction

July 14, 2010 20:25 IST

The trouble is that trying anything more than the routine CBMs to affect a paradigm change in the bilateral relationship is a bit of a catch-22 situation: without trust, bold initiatives are not possible; but how do you build trust without bold initiatives, writes Sushant Sareen.

The visit of External Affairs Minister S M Krishna to Islamabad marks the beginning of yet another political level dialogue, this time to try and address the new 'core issue' -- the yawning 'trust deficit' -- bedevilling relations between India and Pakistan. But it is too early to say if this visit will pave the way for what the Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao has called a "serious, comprehensive and sustained dialogue" with Pakistan. Other than opening up a new line of communication with Pakistan and restarting the process of a political engagement between the two countries, very little is expected to be achieved during Krishna's visit.

The extremely low expectation attached to the dialogue process is probably not such a bad thing in the Indo-Pak context. While on the one hand, the low expectations will test the commitment of both sides to 'sustain' the dialogue, on the other hand they will also insulate the two governments and political establishments from the unnecessary hype that precedes any Indo-Pak engagement and which is inevitably dashed on the rock of reality of the state of relations between the two countries.

That nobody expects anything from these talks raises serious questions about the purpose behind them. Is the dialogue part of a well-thought out strategy or is it driven by the whim, and if you stretch it, vision, of an individual? Are the talks an attempt to ward of any real or imagined or even potential international pressure or are the talks merely testing of the ground to see if something can be worked out between the two neighbours? These questions become even more important when we consider that the political and diplomatic environment in which this dialogue is taking place doesn't give much cause for optimism.

As things stand, there is absolutely nothing on the ground to suggest that Pakistan is ready to address India's core concerns on terrorism. Nor is there any indication that there has been any change in Pakistan's hostile perception of India. Quite to the contrary, not only has Pakistan restarted the jihad factory directed against India, the Pakistan army chief has on more than one occasion publicly declared that he considers India, and not the barbaric Taliban, to be the enemy and existential threat to Pakistan.

Add to this the misplaced triumphalism inside Pakistan over the pivotal role it is in the process of acquiring in Afghanistan, which has made it cockier in its dealings with India. Finally, India will be talking with a civilian government in Pakistan, which is only in charge of municipal functions and really has no authority or political capital to negotiate on any issue even remotely related to Pakistan's national security.

All this puts a big question mark over the utility, and timing, of the current dialogue. There are of course the 'usual suspects' in the Indian civil society, and even political establishment, who have deluded themselves into believing that Pakistan has realised the folly of using jihad as an instrument of state policy against its neighbours. These people are living in as much denial as those Pakistanis who label the terror attacks in their country as the handiwork of India's intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing, the American Central Intelligence Agency or the Israeli Mossad.

Like most Pakistanis who don't bat an eyelid before absolving the jihadists of any involvement in suicide bombings despite their claiming responsibility for these terror attacks, there are some Indians who adhere to the fiction that Pakistan has learnt its lessons and will give up using jihad against India. But asides of this fringe, non-voting class' of bleeding hearts, there is very little public support in India for re-engagement with Pakistan. Even the political support within the Congress party and United Progressive Alliance government for the initiative of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is very iffy.

Apart from the political and diplomatic obstacles that will have to be surmounted, there appears to be a total disconnect between the stated objective of the dialogue -- bridging the trust deficit -- and the instrumentalities through which this objective is sought to be achieved. There doesn't seem to be any clarity on what needs to be done to bridge the trust gap and develop that level of confidence in each other which allows the two countries to move to substantive negotiations.

Neither of the two sides are really taking any big idea to the table that will help in building 'trust' and breaking the six decade logjam between them. Nor for that matter have the two sides figured out what they think they must do or can do to gain the trust of the other side.

What is likely to be on offer is a few more of the sort of cosmetic Confidence Building Measures that have been undertaken so far. While CBMs on providing relief to fishermen, opening trade, swapping prisoners etc. are nice humanitarian gestures, they are not going to be of much help in the strategic sense. Clearly, the so-called CBMs between India and Pakistan have done everything except build confidence between the two sides.

The trouble is that trying anything more than the routine CBMs to affect a paradigm change in the bilateral relationship is a bit of a catch-22 situation: without trust, bold initiatives are not possible; but how do you build trust without bold initiatives.

Perhaps the problem lies in the way the dialogue is structured between the two countries. A formal dialogue of the sort taking place in Islamabad, with the bureaucracies of the two countries preparing the agenda and doing the ground work for their political principals, is probably not the ideal way to go. In such a setting, both sides will be raising their own points and countering the points of the other side -- hardly the best way to build trust and confidence.

Given the state of relations between the two countries, it perhaps might make more sense to engage Pakistan in a strategic political dialogue which focuses beyond immediate disputes and problems and seeks to first lay down the framework of ties between the two countries.

In other words, the political leaderships in the two countries need to work out the basis of their relationship, where they want to go in their bilateral relationship, how do they see their bilateral relationship develop over the next 50 years, and what are they willing to do and how far are they willing to go to ensure that such a relationship becomes a reality. Alongside, there should be a regular interaction between the two foreign offices, armies and even intelligence agencies to try and see if some kind of grand strategic bargain can be worked out based on a convergence of strategic interests.

All these various tracks must be official, not track-II, and the objective should not be to obtain something tangible after every meeting, but to develop an understanding of each other's concerns and compulsions and try and see if anything can be done to address them.

Will such an alternative dialogue process work? Maybe not. But what is the harm in trying something new and different, rather than going around in circles like we have been doing for half a century now.

Sushant Sareen