A Deepening Mess - Pakistan is again exploiting India’s eagerness for dialogue
Amb Kanwal Sibal

Apropos our decision to resume a “comprehensive” dialogue with Pakistan, the question needs to be asked why we want to play the same game with our neighbour again and again when we know that it does not want to play by accepted rules, or interprets the rules differently from us, or indeed sets its own rules of play. Pakistan also commits fouls with impunity, but that does not deter us from going into the field with it. We also enter the game under threat of constant violence by our adversary. When we give such latitude to Pakistan and our own play is so defensive and permissive, how can we ever hope to win the game?

The reference to the “Thimphu spirit” suggests that we believe there is a positive spirit that animates Pakistan in playing this game. Why we persist in believing this despite the experience of the past is not easy to explain. We have had before other versions of a similar ‘spirit’ — the Lahore spirit, the Islamabad one, that of Havana, Ekaterinberg and Sharm-el-Sheikh, and New Delhi too, but, despite the rhetoric and expressions of hope, Pakistan’s game behaviour has continued to be unclean and malevolent.

We are the ones that make all the effort to create a positive environment before each round of play, despite Pakistan’s bid to vitiate the atmosphere. We say we have no choice but to play an honest game, however dishonest the other side is. Our bounden duty is to play the neighbourhood team, we say, despite its reputation of being unsporting. We exhibit our great keenness to enter the field, always assuming that the game will be played with positive intent on both sides. We are glad to offer to do the extra running to make the game exciting if the other side were to show some seriousness in playing straight. We are even willing to acknowledge for discussion some imaginary fouls the adversary charges us with, so long as play can be maintained. Our bottom line, of course, is that refusal to play the game, whatever the level of fraud and deception on the other side, is not an option.

Pakistan garners many advantages in responding to our overtures to resume play after periodic suspensions because of its misconduct. As the wooed party it makes demands with regard to playing conditions. Because our urge to play gets regenerated time and again, it feeds Pakistan’s conviction that its misdeeds will always get condoned eventually, and that whatever fouls it commits or rules it transgresses, the game will not be called off for too long. Indeed, the play will then resume from a new threshold of tolerance of its objectionable acts on India’s part. By being invited to play, Pakistan also gets acknowledged as a credible team, and India’s equal. When teams play, the cheerleaders are in the ring to make a noise. When the play stops they are disappointed and push for it to resume. India, as the supposedly stronger team, is then pressed to overlook fouls and violence and make the requisite gesture to the weaker side. And finally, Pakistan sees in every bout of play with an India that seems bereft of a winning playing strategy an improved chance of defeating its adversary — by scoring the goal it has long hoped for.

This is an elaborate metaphor for our diplomacy with Pakistan. We are once again engaging Pakistan in a dialogue, without learning salutary lessons from past dealings. When Pakistan resists our basic demands we gradually modify them under the cover of platitudinous references to compulsions of neighbourhood, of “no dialogue” not being an option, of a stable and prosperous Pakistan being in our interest and so on — and in this way the climbdown is sought to be concealed.

After the Mumbai attack, Pakistan, far from being on the defensive, has been adamant that India’s step-by-step approach, with priority focus on terrorism, is not acceptable because it relegates the Kashmir issue to the background. It has insisted on the revival of the composite dialogue, as that would cover, besides Kashmir, the Siachen issue over which the Pakistanis feel aggrieved and want an Indian withdrawal. We have now yielded to its demand, though we are avoiding calling the renewed full spectrum dialogue “composite”, as if description defines reality. We will be discussing Kashmir, peace and security, counter-terrorism, Siachen, Sir Creek, the Wullar barrage/Tulbul navigation project, economic cooperation and people to people contacts, an agenda that has an uncanny resemblance to the “composite dialogue” that we ostensibly reject. Pakistan’s obstinacy has succeeded in extracting a major concession from us. To top it all, Pakistan has made the visit of its foreign minister to India contingent on “meaningful” results, implying that the onus is on us to produce results to its satisfaction.

Meanwhile, Pakistan has made no progress in bringing to justice those responsible for the Mumbai terror attacks, much less act against the India-directed jihadi groups. Indeed, it seems to have now threatened that the masterminds of Mumbai like Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi may be released unless a Pakistani judicial commission can come to India to authenticate Ajmal Kasab’s confession. We are succumbing to these delaying procedural tactics that enable Pakistan to make the pretence of doing something in accordance with the law while doing practically nothing through legal manipulations.

We seem to be buying the argument that even if Pakistan wanted to act on our demands it would not be able to do so in the current conditions of domestic terror and mounting extremist sentiment exemplified by the largely approving public reaction to Salman Taseer’s killing. As usual, we discover excuses for our adversary’s inaction in order to justify resiling from our own position. Suddenly, even Hafiz Saeed, the bogey man of yesterday is no longer worthy of serious notice. The venomous head of the terrorist organization, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the spiritual architect of Mumbai, who advocated a nuclear strike against India a day before the Thimphu meet, and who has close links with the Pakistani political and military establishment, is now dismissed as “inconsequential”. Because it is amply clear that the Pakistani government will not act against him, we feel obliged to change tack in order to clear the political decks for resuming the dialogue.

Why downgrade the centrality of terrorism by consigning discussions on it to the level of home secretaries? The home secretaries do not handle foreign policy, whereas terrorism is a foreign policy issue not only bilaterally with Pakistan, but also regionally and, indeed, internationally. The dialogue at the home secretaries level can be supplementary to the dialogue between the principals — in this case the foreign secretaries — with focus on evidence, documents, procedures, modalities of exchange of information, counter-terrorism matters and suchlike technical issues. The degree of integrality of the terrorism issue to the quality and substance of the overall India-Pakistan relationship cannot be in the remit of the home secretaries. The principals will discuss Kashmir though, giving this issue the centrality that Pakistan has been manoeuvring for.

Pakistan is exploiting the dialogue game to maul us as much as it can. Show it the yellow card and wait for its initiative to resume play if it wants to extract itself from its deepening mess.

Published in The Telegraph dated 9 March, 2011

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