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India's negotiations: Only form, no content

March 03, 2010 16:19 IST

There is a ritualised quality with the negotiations conducted by the Indian government; and this may be fitting in the context of many other things done in India, where one goes through the motions.

There is form, but not content. The casual observer is struck by the similarity with one of those episodes in Star Trek, where the spaceship lands on a planet which looks superficially like the earth, but in fact things are vastly, often fatally, different there.

To carry the science-fiction metaphor further, it is like the 'hotel room' that the astronaut in 2001: A Space Odyssey lands up in after his psychedelic journey through a black hole. It does look, for all practical purposes, like a room at a mid-range Hilton hotel; however, it is merely an artifact prepared by the unseen intelligences who have brought him there, so that he will not be startled on awakening.

There is a similar make-believe quality with India's negotiations. Consider some instances -- the negotiations with China over treaty rights in Tibet, wherein India meekly surrendered substantial leverage in return for absolutely nothing; the border talks for the last 28 years that have only led to further Chinese claims on Indian territory; the interminable and futile discussions with Pakistan, with no letup in cross-border terrorism.

In the Copenhagen climate change summit, China hoodwinked India into a stand that helps China, a major polluter, not India, a minor villain. The 'nuclear deal' with the United States also gave away too much in return for very little.

There are rare success stories too, especially when there is a clear goal. Former permanent Indian representative to the United Nations, Arundhati Ghose, famously fended off nuclear blackmail regarding the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

So why does India merely have form, not content? The most charitable reason may be that India's negotiators have no idea what they are doing, and they are simply aping what others do. I had the startling experience of being told that Indo-Pak negotiations would be 'popular' with the powers-that-be. I was left wondering if negotiations are a popularity contest or a device to advance India's national interests.

The malicious reason could well be that India's negotiators know very well what they are doing, but they do it anyway. An example is cited in Claude Arpi's book on Tibet, of an Indian ambassador to pre-Tibet-conquest China who knew what the Chinese were doing (nibbling away at Tibet's sovereignty) wasn't in India's national interest, but condoned it anyway because he thought China was going to be the wave of the future.

This attitude is reflected in a recent missive from a retired Indian bureaucrat who wondered if India should peacefully vacate Arunachal Pradesh, or wait till China took it by force!

There is one more plausible reason: strings being pulled. There was a chilling editorial in the New York Times on February 26 titled India and Pakistan (Barely) Talk. It had barely-concealed annoyance: 'No future discussions were scheduled. That is not enough, for the United States...'

There was also a rather frightening statement: 'In 2007, after three years of secret negotiations, the two sides were reportedly close to a deal to create an autonomous, demilitarised region in Kashmir.' In other words, there is a secret American-brokered deal in the wings regarding Kashmir, and we can guess what it means.

As Churchill said, 'jaw-jaw is better than war-war.' But in India there is no recognition that there is a logic and a structure to parleys, that there is a difference between positions and interests; and that ends and means must be separated.

As India has gone back to the negotiating table with Pakistan, due in large part to American pressure, and with Communist insurgents (I am not sure if they go by 'Maoists' or 'Naxalites' or what their latest preferred name is today), it is worth considering how prepared we are.

A recent book by Harvard negotiation strategist Robert Mnookin, Bargaining with the devil: When to negotiate, when to fight, highlights two paradigmatic situations -- the decision made by Winston Churchill to not negotiate with Adolf Hitler; and the decision made by the imprisoned Nelson Mandela, to indeed engage with F W de Klerk's apartheid regime. Both decisions, according to the book, were right, and avoided worse outcomes.

Mnookin focuses on situations in which two parties that may consider each other will sit down at the bargaining table. There should be a combination of intuitive as well as analytical approaches, he suggests.

This is where India fails: negotiators depend entirely on intuition, when a cold-blooded decision-tree analysis would help. Some Indian negotiators are seduced into accepting the other side's perspectives, for instance through judicious use of Urdu couplets (to create bhai-bhai) and 'sob stories' about poor villagers (to justify insurgent atrocities).

There are several major problems. First, a serious, core issue: the lack of clarity about objectives. Nobody knows what the goals are, what is absolutely non-negotiable, what the 'don't-cares' are that can be thrown in as concessions to clinch a deal.

Therefore they do not know when to hold and when to fold. For instance, when talking to Communist terrorists, the objective is to get them to give up the pursuit of a violent overthrow of the State; their civil rights are not the main concern. (We also have to be hard-nosed: the human rights of the insurgent and the terrorist are not greater than the human rights of the average citizen).

Second, the negotiators do not distinguish between positions (some of which may be posturing for domestic consumption), and fundamental interests. China always takes extreme positions, probing for weaknesses.

However, if there is credible push-back, China will retreat. To be deterred, they have to believe that India is prepared to fight if the talks fail. They don't; nor do Pakistanis or Communist guerillas. They think India simply doesn't have the will, so they are not deterred. Without that implicit danda, all the carrots, sama, and dana, don't work.

Third, because they do not internalise core interests, India's negotiators are sidetracked into peripheral matters. An example was the panic-stricken insistence about Indo-Pak rail links, which were jeopardised by a terror attack on the Samjhauta Express. There were pious pronouncements: 'The rail links must not be affected.' The show must go on? Why? What is so sacred about that? The rail links are only a means to the end. By focusing on the rail links -- a means -- they were coerced into losing sight of the termination of terrorism -- the end.

Negotiation and game theory are taught in business schools (Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and William Ury is a favourite) and schools of government the world over, but apparently not to India's mandarins.

One of the cardinal principles taught is that you must be fully prepared with three alternatives: a) the desired goal, b) the compromise you can live with even though it is less than ideal, and c) the walk-away position. These alternatives are decided on ahead of time, and negotiators will not deviate from them.

They will be prepared to walk away if the only thing they can get is worse than the acceptable compromise. Indians attempt to wing it and figure out their alternatives on the fly, and get confused and rattled. And lose out.

Game theory is relevant: negotiations between countries can be modelled as a repeated Prisoner's Dilemma game. In such a game two parties have payoffs depending on their independent actions, not knowing the other's. If both co-operate, there is a modest payoff. If you co-operate and the other betrays, he wins big. If both betray each other, both get a small penalty. If it's a one-off game, obviously it is best to betray. But in a repeated game, that's not so clear.

It turns out the best tactic is tit-for-tat, so that if the adversary cooperates, you cooperate the next time; but if they betray you, you betray them the next time. Alas, Indians cooperate all the time, which means there is no penalty to Pakistan for betrayal; their payoff is better if they betray, so they will do it every time.

Exhibit A, the 91,000 prisoners India released after the Bangladesh War. Exhibit B, Sharm-al-Sheikh where the unfair equivalence of Balochistan with Kashmir was accepted. In both cases, India made a significant concession, but got nothing in return that advanced its interests.

Similarly, Communist insurgents have learned that they can offer 'talks' and 'ceasefires', use the respite to re-arm themselves, and then turned around and betray. There is no consequence to them for bad-faith behaviour.

In other words, India's negotiation skills are extremely poor. It is best to not expect any miracles from these palavers.

However, it is quite intriguing that the Indian side more or less ambushed the Pakistanis on February 25 with dossiers about three serving Pakistani army officers accused of supporting terrorist activity.

This is so close, in diplomatic terms, to accusing Pakistan directly of being a terrorist State, that the Pakistani foreign minister blew his top. He clearly was not prepared for this eventuality. That is a new game: it is usually the Pakistanis who ambush the Indians (remember then-President Musharraf's post-Agra press conference?).

This is an interesting new situation: an India that can say no, perhaps, to paraphrase the Japanese book of a similar title. If this is how things are going to be, going forward, perhaps the interlocutors will see that there is merit in co-operation, too. A backbone is respected by negotiators. There is no percentage in being a soft State.

Rajeev Srinivasan