India-Pakistan relations are at their lowest point in recent memory. No wonder the unrest in Kashmir is at its worst too. Neither development is good for the people of the two countries. I have been the convenor of the annual India-Pakistan dialogue since 2003, following the attack on Parliament in December 2001 and the year-long near-war tension in its aftermath. Getting former policymakers—diplomats and soldiers—and people from the media and civil society to unwind and resume civilised conversation was not easy. The ice was broken and we had Track II talks, uninterrupted except for one more dip after the 2008 Mumbai attacks. The spoilers were doing their job and we were doing ours: keeping the unofficial channels of dialogue open, especially when the official lines were closed.
India-Pakistan relations are rightly described as a game of snakes and ladders with scarcely any ladders and no low-hanging fruit. More than two years after Narendra Modi became PM, the official dialogue has not started. In fact, talks were suspended by the UPA government after an Indian soldier was beheaded on the LoC in 2013. Talks were on the verge of starting twice—once between foreign secretaries and again between foreign ministers—but were aborted due to New Delhi’s insistence that Pakistani officials do not meet the Hurriyat. That red line was quietly removed in the last session of Parliament in response to a written question.
Last week, Union home minister Rajnath Singh was in Islamabad ducking lunches and exchanging snide remarks with his hosts over cross-border terrorism in the multilateral SAARC fora. Two years earlier, at the Kathmandu summit, Nawaz Sharif and Modi were studiously avoiding a public handshake, but with no worthwhile agreement in the bag, all that the regional summit could celebrate was the handshake when it finally happened. If Modi won’t go to the UN next month, as is likely, any on-the-sidelines meeting with Sharif is off the table. The Islamabad summit on November 7-8, then, could meet the same fate as Kathmandu. And if Kashmir gets more restive—Pakistan wants it to, for creating the right backdrop for Sharif’s UN intervention—a hot winter can be expected in Kashmir and the hinterland. Thanks to the likes of Hafiz Saeed and Syed Salahuddin, the ISI could misread the mood in the Valley and try to replay the 1965 Operation Gibraltar. What is missing from India’s policy is a big stick.
At this rate, the neatly crafted two-track (National Security Advisor and Foreign Secretary) dialogue won’t start anytime soon. Pakistan army chief General Raheel Sharief will retire in November and is unlikely to be granted an extension, or be tempted to emulate the posters in the big cities by a little-known party ‘Move On Pakistan’ urging him to do a Musharraf. That would make the general the real sheriff of Pakistan. Ironically, MusharRAF’s eight years as president and army chief, especially 2003-07, was the best period in India-Pakistan relations. A ceasefire prevailed along the LoC, infiltration was down by 60 per cent and an interim Kashmir formula was nearly clinched.
With no light at the end of the tunnel, our job at Track II becomes, like Robert Bruce’s, to keep trying—and remain engaged. We are told how France and Germany waged war for 300 years and today have a Franco-German Brigade, joint TV channels, economic union and more. The American ‘India-Pakistan’ guru Stephen Cohen predicted the state of no war, no peace will last 100 years (70 years are over).
We are now trying to move away from the security-centric discourse to people, investment, trade and connectivity, bypassing governments and mobilising public opinion as far as possible. Spoilers are being turned into facilitators. So, while official channels remain closed, we will keep talking and inviting the wrath of the shouting brigade on TV, who will yell, ‘Why talk with the enemy.’ To them, I recommend a book by Charles Kupchan: How Enemies Become Friends.
(The writer retired from the army as a major-general.)
Track-II diplomacy refers to unofficial dialogue and activities involving academic, religious and NGO leaders, who can interact more freely than high-ranking officials, to help resolve political conflict.