February 17, 2020
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A Hidden Agenda

Is Benazir Bhutto's offer for talks as well-meaning as it seems?

A Hidden Agenda
JUST days after the Deve Gowda Government assumed office, the Indian foreign office was taken completely by surprise by a Pakistani diplomatic initiative. After a lull of two-and-a-half years, Islamabad made an effusive offer of 'unconditional talks' with India to settle, as Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto put it, "the core issue of Jammu and Kashmir and other outstanding matters between our two countries".

The last serious Indo-Pak contact was in January 1994 when the then foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan, J.N. Dixit and Shahryar Khan, respectively, met in Islamabad. The talks were followed up by the two countries exchanging non-papers. After that there has been absolutely no contact largely because Pakistan has insisted that unless India agrees to a 'meaningful' dialogue on Kashmir, there is no point in discussing other bilateral issues like the Tulbul barrage, Sir Creek and Siachen.

 Interestingly, the meeting between Dixit and Khan had followed a message of felicitation sent by the then Indian Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao to Bhutto on her becoming the Prime Minister of Pakistan. Rao had then offered unconditional talks to Bhutto on all outstanding issues, including Kashmir.

For his part, External Affairs Minister I.K. Gujral told journalists on June 7 that India would reply to Bhutto's message within 24 hours. While he did not elaborate on what exactly would be his response, officials in the Ministry of External Affairs said it would not be a negative reply.

While calling for "sitting across the table for a search for lasting peace", Bhutto has urged Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda to "let the world witness our two great countries putting their acrimonies behind them for the sake of their people". She said she looked forward to working with India to create an environment conducive to "peace, security and development, so that the vast potential of our two countries can be fully realised".

While Bhutto's message makes for happy reading, her motive is far from clear. Is the offer really for "unconditional talks"? On the surface, it might seem so. But in actual fact, it is not. Bhutto very clearly talks of the settlement of the "core issue" of Kashmir. And going by past experience, when Pakis tan speaks about J&K, it talks of the UN resolutions and the plebiscite. And nothing has happened in the last couple of years for Pakistan to change its stand.

A senior official of the Pakistan foreign office told Outlook : "Our offer should not be misundertstood. Bhutto's statement did not come because of any pressure. We will stick to our basic position that Kashmir remains the core dispute and must be on the agenda of any Indo-Pak dialogue. It should be resolved in the light of the UN resolutions and there is no substitute to plebiscite." 

What then could be Pakistan's motivation for making such an offer? External Affairs Ministry officials feel that Islamabad thought that with a new Government assuming charge in New Delhi, it was an opportune moment to make the offer. By closing all avenues to negotiations, Pakistan, they say, had painted itself into a situation it was seeking to reverse. Besides, said an official, it sent "a message to the international community that Pakistan is willing to talk".

Secondly, the ground situation in Kashmir has undergone a change after the parliamentary elections, which is extremely worrying for Islamabad. It is even more apprehensive about the assembly elections the Indian Government is determined to hold in the next few months. By calling for these talks and putting some controversial spin in them, Pakistan can once again confuse the situation in Jammu and Kashmir. Besides, if there are to be talks, it can always suggest that the assembly elections should be postponed. "This is one thing we should not do We should have exploratory talks with Pakistan, listen to them, but under no circumstances should we go slow on the assembly polls," said a senior Indian diplomat "Pakistan realises that the ground situation is in our favour and in its assessment a weak Central Government in India may be willing to make some concessions to bring the tension down on Kashmir," said another official.

But this argument can be turned on its head. Precisely because the Centre is perceived to be weak, and is supported by the Congress from outside, it is unlikely to make any major concessions to Islamabad—which Pakistan would have assessed.

Former foreign secretary Muchkund Dubey feels that Pakistan has come around to opening a dialogue with India because it has realised that "Kashmir is not really the ripe fruit it thought would fall into its lap. They have realised that agitating in all parts of the world is not going to help. More importantly, cutting off all dialogue will not help either. We should respond positively." 

Pakistani messages on improving ties are not new. In January 1990, soon after the V.P. Singh government was formed, Bhutto, then in her first tenure, despatched formerhigh commissioner to India, Abdus Sattar, who was then the Pakistani ambassador in Moscow, as her special envoy to talk to Singh and Gujral, who was then the external affairs minister. Ten days later she sent Foreign Minister Yaqub Khan to meet the Indian leaders. The excuse given for his visit was the postponed SAARC summit. But he spent much of his time discussing Kashmir and how Pakistan wanted to improve ties with India. In a talk with Gujral, he warned of the "war clouds hovering over the subcontinent", to which he got a strong reply from the Indian minister. Significantly, this was the time when Pakistan-backed militants were escalating violence in Kashmir, which blew up around this period.

In October 1990, Nawaz Sharif became prime minister and met his Indian counterpart, Chandra Shekhar, in Male in March 1991 at the SAARC summit where he made similar noises. He arrived in India in May 1991 to attend Rajiv Gandhi's funeral and sought a separate meeting with Chandra Shekhar where he again spoke of improving bilateral relations and resolving the Kashmir problem. In June 1991, Rao came to power. Sharif sent his foreign secretary, Shahryar Khan, as his special envoy in August 1991, reiterating Pakistan's desire to normalise ties with India. But on returning to power, domestic compulsions forced Bhutto to adopt a strident approach towards India, finally leading to a cessation of all dialogue.

How should India react to this offer? "Coolly," says former foreign secretary A.P. Venkateswaran. "Pakistan should spell out what exactly it is prepared to talk about. Unconditional talks do not mean anything if you define the core issues simultaneously. We should not create empty euphoria. It has happened over and over again since the Partition. It is a reversion to old times. Still we should not appear to be negative."

 Indian officials realise that once they sit down for talks, Islamabad will reiterate its stand on Kashmir. In fact, another felicitation message sent by Pakistan Foreign Minister Assef Ahmed Ali to Gujral expresses the hope that the two countries can have "substantive and purposeful" talks. Naturally, in Pakistani terminology purposeful talks means discussing the plebiscite.

Pakistan sent no message to the BJP government and waited until Deve Gowda took over. Significantly, it came after a meeting of the Pakistani troika comprising the President, Prime Minister and the army chief. But the secretary general of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) Sartaj Aziz felt that Bhutto would have to do much more than just issue statements. Said he: "The government's performance so far shows that they haven't made any serious effort to approach India." He noted that since the offer had been made, it was up to India to respond positively.

Foreign affairs experts in Pakistan see the Bhutto offer as a ploy to put pressure on India. Islamabad, they say, wants to show to the world that it is serious, but it's India which is running away. In any case, Pakistani officials do not expect any real breakthrough on Kashmir, given the hardened stands on both sides. 

It is no coincidence that Pakistan has made the offer of opening up trade just days after Bhutto's offer of talks. Sceptics may disagree but it is tempting to see some connection between the two things. After all one of the primary motivations of sending such a conciliatory message to Gowda was to get propaganda mileage. The offer of opening up bilateral trade is aimed at showing how positively Pakistan is moving towards improving relations with India. This, despite the fact that Islamabad is still refusing to grant India the most favoured nation status.

But a much more confident India, following the holding of elections in Kashmir, is unlikely to let Pakistan get much political advantage and it can't be too long before the two countries return to their diplomatic shadow boxing over Kashmir.

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