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Indian Shining in Islamabad

July 19, 2010 16:51 IST
In actual fact, India was shining in Islamabad by its restraint, firmness and general demeanour of reasonableness.

The Indian delegation was even better dressed at every event, with S M Krishna's well tailored suits and fashionable ties and Nirupama Rao's magnificent saris, says former diplomat T P Sreenivasan.

The breakdown of the recent talks between India and Pakistan was not difficult to predict. (See my article of July 14: 'Futile quest for trust'). The expectations were low, the results were lower. It was a demonstration of deep distrust, not just deepening of the trust deficit.

Political and diplomatic careers are made and destroyed on the India-Pakistan front. The search for scapegoats follows every diplomatic fiasco. Failures are attributed to omissions or commissions on the part of the Indian negotiators even if the crass hostility of the other side was on public display.

We have no qualms about blaming the Indian side for not reacting with equal force to every nasty move or remark.

By all accounts, the six hours that S M Krishna and S M Qureshi spent in the privacy of their conference room were productive to the extent possible. They discussed not only terrorism, but also Kashmir and Siachen, and also agreed to meet again.

The problem was that Pakistan's insistence on a timeframe for resolution for some of the problems was unrealistic, particularly since there was no timeframe for punishing the terrorists or for dismantling the terrorist outfits.

When there was no joint statement, going for a joint presser was a grave error and both sides must take the responsibility for it.

Driven by the journalists, rather than by the negotiators, it opened every wound, exposed every gap in approaches and took the situation back to square one and beyond.

Qureshi emerged the villain of the piece, with his penchant for punches. His manner of speaking gave the impression that he was determined not to miss any opportunity to score points, not to salvage the gains of the talks.

The Indian side, on the other hand -- S M Krishna, Nirupama Rao and Sharat Sabharwal -- was the picture of tranquillity, poise and perseverance. Krishna spoke in measured tones, but firmly and convincingly. Except for failing to defend the home secretary, Krishna's performance was faultless.

In the case of the home secretary, Krishna was silent, perhaps because he was truthful enough not to deny that the home secretary's statement was 'unhelpful' in the context of the talks.

One feature of public opinion in India is the belief that Indian diplomats are easily outwitted by Pakistani diplomats at every step. Indians never fail to note that Pakistan is able to get support from the United States and China by hook or by crook, while India, with a much better case, is unable to secure such support.

Geopolitical considerations are never taken into account in arriving at such a judgment. But the other side of the coin is that the Pakistani public considers Indian diplomats far superior to their counterparts in Pakistan.

Neutral observers say the two sides are so well poised equally that no change is possible either between India and Pakistan or in the global attitudes to them.

Even in the present instance, some Indians insist they were impressed that Qureshi spoke well, his accent was good and his diplomatic skills were evident. But, in actual fact, India was shining in Islamabad by its restraint, firmness and general demeanour of reasonableness.

The Indian delegation was even better dressed at every event, with Krishna's well tailored suits and fashionable ties and Nirupama Rao's magnificent saris.

Nirupama Rao was the star of the show in the days following the fiasco in Islamabad, although her performance at the meeting will remain unknown to the outside world.

Instead of drawing herself into a shell for fear of being blamed for what went wrong, she took the bull by the horns by giving a series of interviews to national television channels. She outlined the Indian objectives in the talks, claimed that much was accomplished in them and played down the damage made by the press conference.

She was confident that the progress made in the talks could be salvaged and asserted that there was no breakdown of the talks, only the usual problems generated by a reluctant Pakistan.

She explained the failure to defend the home secretary as part of the 'pellmell' of the press conference. It was, of course, beyond her to justify the timing of the talks or to defend the decision to seek trust in a relationship which is patently distrustful.

S M Krishna too was his dignified self at the press conference, even after Qureshi hurled insults at him by saying that Krishna lacked a mandate and was constantly on the phone to consult New Delhi. A sense of disbelief rather than anger was the dominant emotion on his face when he answered Qureshi. Krishna's strength lies in some of the weaknesses the media has highlighted.

Being low key, cautious and keeping meticulously to his brief are not liabilities in diplomacy, particularly in dealing with Pakistan. In contrast to Qureshi's outspokenness and flamboyance, Krishna appeared the more seasoned and wise diplomat. His solid experience in politics and administration and his record of transforming Karnataka were on his side even when he faced Qureshi's ranting.

Much as he may have resented the home secretary's remarks, Krishna stoutly defended him. Krishna may have confined to his brief, but that has been his way ever since he was a young delegate to the United Nations in the eighties.

India, even as it reaffirms its intention to continue the dialogue, must have learnt its lessons from the Islamabad experience. Issues have to be addressed and resolved to establish trust, and the time of dialogue is not when Pakistan is unprepared to deal with substantive issues.

We should not close the door to dialogue, but we need not have dialogue for its own sake. Islamabad has shown that untimely dialogue can have a negative impact on relations.

Dialogue, by itself, is no panacea for the ills in India-Pakistan relations. If India has lost nothing in the recent round, it was because of the dignified and measured moves of the Indian delegation.

T P Sreenivasan is a former ambassador of India to the United Nations, Vienna, and a former Governor for India at the International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna. He is currently the Director General, Kerala International Centre, Thiruvananthapuram, and a Member of the National Security Advisory Board.

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Watch the Krishna-Qureshi press conference on Rediff: Video 1 | Video 2 | Video 3 | Video 4

TP Sreenivasan