Friday, July 23, 2010




    Lowbrowed behaviour doesn't mix well with high diplomacy. Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi's public show of petulance at being thwarted by the tough and unrelenting stand taken by the mild-mannered Indian External Affairs Minister, SM Krishna, certainly left a bad taste in the mouth. Worse, it effectively scotched any chance of putting a positive spin on the foreign minister level talks. Despite the failure to bridge differences over critical issues like terrorism and Kashmir which blocked the joint statement, the two sides had managed to agree on a few things, which though minor, could have helped to give a small push forward to the dialogue process. In the end, the 'all-or-nothing' approach of Qureshi left India with no choice but to call his bluff and walk away from the table without any agreement on any issue.

Much like Gen Pervez Musharraf, who in 2001 was left nonplussed by Atal Behari Vajpayee's firmness, Qureshi too seemed to have been completely taken by surprise by Krishna's refusal to be either charmed or pushed by his Pakistani counterpart's hard-sell and compromise on the mandate given to him by the Indian cabinet prior to his talks in Islamabad. Both Musharraf's 'ambush diplomacy' in Agra in 2001, and Qureshi's "dictation diplomacy" (in which he parroted the lines dictated to him by the puppeteers sitting in the GHQ, Rawalpindi) were typically the result of miscalculating and misreading India's intentions in restarting the dialogue with Pakistan. More than anything else, it is this feeling that the Indians are reaching out to Pakistan from a position of weakness that leads the Pakistanis to invariably over-play their hand on the negotiating table.

    To be fair to the Pakistanis, the terrible timing of the Indian leadership's decision to once again reach out to Pakistan is in large measure responsible for fiasco in Islamabad. India took the initiative for talks with Pakistan after the London conference on Afghanistan where the Pakistanis were accorded a central role in deciding the future course of events in Afghanistan and India was practically sidelined. The Pakistanis couldn't stop crowing about the success of their double-game in the war on terror, which is now increasingly the only game that the Pakistanis are playing in Afghanistan what with the Pakistani army's lobbying for adjusting terrorist groups like the Haqqani network in Kabul. Such was the hubris in Pakistan that one analyst went to the extent of describing Pakistan as the centre of South Asian politics!

Agreeing to a dialogue with Pakistan under these circumstances was a sure recipe for disaster. Suffused with triumphalism over the success of their Afghan policy, it was quite natural for the Pakistanis to imagine that India was on a very weak wicket and was coming under tremendous US pressure, and that Pakistan could actually push India to agree to make concessions on issues like Jammu and Kashmir. Therefore, if there is anything positive about the failure of the talks in Islamabad, it is that the balloon of triumphalism in Pakistan has been punctured. Mr Krishna has disabused the Pakistanis of their delusion and conveyed in very clear and emphatic terms not only India's red lines, but also that India will deal with Pakistan on its own terms and if the Pakistanis really desire good relations with India then it must take the minimum necessary steps to allay India's concerns over terrorism.

Another positive that can be derived from the dialogue in Islamabad is that it would have informed the Indian leadership of the power equations in Islamabad and confirmed the pointlessness of expecting the elected civilian 'government' to deliver on anything. Although Mr Qureshi tried very hard to convince the world and his own people that unlike Mr Krishna, he had the full authority and confidence of his principals, no one is fooled. It was actually quite funny to see Mr Qureshi pretending to be in charge of making Pakistan's foreign policy, more so since everyone knows that he is a mere show boy and the real policy is made by the GHQ in Rawalpindi. Indeed, Mr Qureshi's boorish behaviour after the joint press conference was probably his way of trying to please his masters and prove his 'patriotic' credentials. There are reasons to believe that given the political situation in Islamabad, with questions being raised over the longevity of the current dispensation and talk of a possible in-house change doing the rounds, Mr Qureshi was also trying to project himself as a possible candidate for the post of Prime Minister in the event that a change in Islamabad becomes inevitable.

Of all the people, Mr Qureshi would have known what was on offer on the table before the talks started. He was being economical with the truth when he said that the Indian side was not 'prepared'. Quite to the contrary, the Indian side was very well prepared and in the talks between officials, the Indian side had informed their Pakistani counterparts how far India would go and the red lines they would not cross. If despite this Mr Qureshi thought that he could charm Krishna to go beyond his mandate, the fault was Qureshi's, not Krishna's. It is the norm that when foreign ministers meet, it is to endorse the agreements that have been reached by officials and perhaps to move forward to the next stage of engagement.

By all accounts the Indians had shown enormous flexibility, perhaps more than they should have, and the Pakistanis knew that in a sense the Indians were ready to hold a 'composite dialogue' (discuss all issues) except that it wouldn't be called a 'Composite Dialogue' and the structure of engagement would be different from the past. But one thing the Indians were not ready to give in on was terrorism. For India, Pakistani assurances were nothing more than lip-service and India wanted to see action on the ground before India could open the dialogue track on Kashmir and Siachen with Pakistan. The Pakistanis however insisted on firm timelines for talking on Kashmir, something that the Indians could not commit on without adequate satisfaction on the terrorism issue. It was this insistence of the Pakistanis that acted as the deal breaker. To blame the failure of the talks to the remarks of the Indian Home Secretary, as indeed the Pakistanis have done, is nothing but a red herring.

As things stand, the dialogue process with Pakistan is not derailed, it is only stalled. The talks can be started as soon as the Pakistanis get down the high horse they are riding. Having taken the decision to restart the dialogue with Pakistan, it would be difficult for India to suspend the dialogue in reaction to Mr Qureshi's churlish behaviour. At the same time, India and Pakistan will need to rethink the structure of the dialogue. If the idea is to build trust and confidence, then the formal, ministerial level structured dialogue will not be very helpful. While this track must certainly continue, it is important that the two countries also put in place a mechanism for their officials, even politicians, to meet in an informal setting where they try and develop a better understanding of each other's positions. In other words, perhaps it might not be a bad idea for Mr Qureshi to actually come to India for a 'pleasure trip' and invite his counterpart to the same in Pakistan.


    <1230 Words>                    23rd July, 2010



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