Indo-Pak talks: Making dialogue worthwhile
There have been rare moments when the dialogue process has appeared to move in the right direction. A number of confidence- and security-building measures (CSBMs) have been signed from time to time. At times the relationship seemed to be entering a more promising phase. But those hopes were never sustained.
The Kashmir dispute has been at the centre of the sterility of the bilateral dialogue. Even the issue of terrorism has been directly or indirectly Kashmir-related. There are other important issues on the agenda. But sooner or later they have been adversely impacted by the apparently unbreakable deadlock on Kashmir and its derivatives.
India and Pakistan have mutually exclusive and self-sufficient narratives on why talks between them end in mutual recrimination instead of mutual understanding on how to move the process forward. Public opinion, including supposedly ‘sophisticated and informed’ opinion in both countries, has internalised its national narrative to an extent that it has become very difficult to talk constructively with each other. In these circumstances, designing a dialogue strategy that both sides can commit to becomes exceedingly difficult.
Leaders in India and Pakistan lack a mutually acceptable vision of relations with each other.
There are reasons for this. Leaders in India and Pakistan lack a mutually acceptable vision of relations with each other. They do not have the commitment, education, imagination and sincerity to overcome the legacies of the past and shape a shared future. They do not have what it takes to build a bilateral relationship that answers to the needs of their respective peoples and is adequate enough to meet the challenges of this century.
There are, of course, many people of experience, goodwill and vision in both countries who have intelligently argued the need for a change in the parameters of the relationship which could transform dialogue from a zero-sum into a win-win process. The responsibilities that attach to being nuclear weapons powers and the 21st-century imperatives of regional cooperation add cogency and urgency to their arguments. However, there is a near consensus among experts that given the prevailing political realities such arguments cannot impact on elite and official attitudes that represent entrenched power structures.
Accordingly, it is argued, especially after the latest breakdown in talks even before they could begin, that neither country should invest in a dialogue process at the moment and, instead, merely seek to contain bilateral tensions by refraining from provocative actions that could lead to dangerous confrontations. They should seek constructive exchanges where possible and ad hoc agreements on issues that are not invested with too much political emotion. What about trade and economic cooperation? Should they await a Kashmir settlement? Or should they be used to build constituencies of influence and mutual understanding?
The India-Pakistan stand-off is not a static situation. It is dangerously dynamic. It can very quickly degenerate towards confrontation and conflict unless ‘core concerns’ are addressed in a manner that reduces tensions. Take Kashmir. It cannot be left to fester. Alternating states of dialogue and no dialogue do not address inherent risks in the current situation. The same applies to the issue of terrorism in the context of Kashmir. What is terrorism and what is legitimate resistance including armed struggle against illegal occupation? These questions can be debated fruitlessly, tackled through futile ‘counterterrorism’, or progressively resolved through broader and more inclusive approaches that take into account the interests of all stakeholders.
Currently, the chances of this happening are slim indeed. But this cannot be taken as a given because of the consequences of political imbecility in the 21st century. Hence, the effort to transform the dialogue from a zero sum into a win-win process must become an overarching and shared priority despite the present unpromising circumstances.
What is to be done? Our respective narratives about each other should eschew the blame game as much as possible even though both countries provide each other reason enough for genuine complaint. Instead, they should focus on the costs and dangers of unremitting mutual hostility and the benefits of a more informed and rational relationship. This should enable efforts to reduce potentially destabilising differences and provide space for movement towards principled and mutually acceptable compromise.
What are core concerns? They are essentially what each interlocutor insists they are. Accordingly, each side should define its own position in a manner that does not exclude the possibility of movement on the core concerns of its interlocutor. This would apply to Kashmir and terrorism as well as other issues on which progress can further contribute to meaningful discussions and movement on the core concerns of both sides.
Based on the above the political leadership of India and Pakistan should consider statements that they will attach the highest priority to improving the quality and substance of the bilateral relationship in order to meet the challenges their respective peoples will face in the 21st century. They should state that while staying within their constitutional parameters they will engage constructively, sincerely and thoroughly with each other on any issue raised by either of them in the search for viable and mutually acceptable solutions.
They should reactivate CSBMs that have lapsed and actively explore the possibilities, in consultation with all relevant stakeholders, on the possibility of further CSBMs and ‘out of the box’ approaches to transforming the bilateral relationship from being a hindrance to being a facilitator for the development of their national potential. They should acknowledge that this will not be possible without progressively changing deeply ingrained and negative mindsets and projecting a more promising image of each other. This policy framework can only be an offshoot of vastly improved domestic governance.
This will be countered by the argument that power structures and vested interests in both countries will not allow such a bilateral framework to develop. History supports such scepticism. However, the future while inevitably influenced by history is never bound by it. The India-Pakistan dialogue will be transformed from its currently sterile quality into something more lasting and productive only if a much larger national transformation gets under way in both countries.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, India and China and head of UN missions in Iraq and Sudan.