Modi’s ‘surprise’ Dec 25 stopover in Lahore has led to numerous questions, explanations and speculations. The significance of the stopover is already being tested by Pathankot. Nevertheless, it was an unanticipated development and apparently provided the bilateral relationship another opportunity. There is, however, the dead hand of the past and there are many spoilers. We have been here before when hope and promise beckoned. But weak and uncommitted leadership as well as irresponsible adventurism blew them away.

India and Pakistan are neighbours and nuclear weapons powers with serious differences that have led to conflict. Nonetheless, they have been unable to summon the effort to sustain a credible bilateral dialogue. This has provided a spectacle of dangerous idiocy to the international community.

The agenda of the Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue (CBD) should include understandings with regard to assisting the Afghan peace process, cooperation regarding climate change and water issues, and the role of the media.

Currently, the CBD appears to be aimed at the September 2016 Saarc summit in Islamabad when the prime ministers will be expected to take the dialogue to a new level of credibility. Preparatory ground work will be needed to ensure the success of future summit encounters, maybe as soon as the nuclear summit in New York next March/April. The prime ministers will need to be in regular touch with each other to ensure negotiating briefs are conducive to productive dialogue.

Although the military and intelligence chiefs in Pakistan have far greater political and diplomatic salience than their counterparts in India they should also meet regularly. In the case of Pakistan, the civilians have to be ‘on the same page’ with the military. India does not have this problem. Accordingly, there could be constitutional and political problems with military-to-military talks in the context of the CBD, which Indians do not see as falling within the domain of the military.


How can the Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue be saved from the sterility of past negotiations?


How can the CBD be saved from the sterility of past negotiations? It will require substantial revision to Indian and Pakistani narratives and perceptions regarding each other. This will require credible actions from both sides to build mutual confidence and trust which are non-existent today. All this will entail inevitable political risk. If the leaders are unimaginative, risk-averse, or unable to restrain hawkish institutions the CBD will be doomed.

The national narratives of both countries are to a great extent the product of history, wars, ideology, class perceptions, power structures, vested interests and an array of institutional processes that mould societal perceptions. If both prime ministers can demonstrate bold, enlightened, and vision-led leadership, on behalf of the interests of their peoples, they will help to modify mutually negative narratives.

Very briefly, India’s narrative portrays Pakistan as (i) a military-dominated terrorist and failing state that is committed to destabilising India; (ii) determined to prevent India’s permanent membership of the UN Security Council; (iii) unwilling to control jihadi elements who are proxies for its India and Kashmir policy; (iv) relying on the first use of nuclear weapons to counter India’s conventional military superiority and Cold Start strategy; and (v) likely to sooner or later abort any peace initiative because of the military’s preference for ‘no war, no peace’ with India.

Similarly, Pakistan’s narrative portrays India as (i) a hegemonic power that regards Pakistan’s conventional and nuclear deterrent capabilities as major obstacles to its grand strategy; (ii) utterly obdurate with regard to the Kashmir dispute despite it being a potential nuclear flashpoint; (iii) trying to regionally and internationally isolate Pakistan and demonise the ISI while its own RAW relentlessly interferes in Balochistan, etc ; (iv) directing its Afghan policy towards confronting Pakistan with a diplomatic and strategic pincer movement; and (v) seeking to undermine US-Pakistan relations.

These narratives may or may not be accurate. But they are effective barriers to mutual trust. Stopovers and sideline meetings cannot address such deep antipathy. That will require specific and sustained actions reflecting a shared vision as well as a demonstration of firm purpose by the leaders. They will need to educate their respective public opinion and political bases. They will also need to shift from empty reiterations of contradictory positions towards strategies that can begin to narrow differences.

India and Pakistan will need to seriously address each other’s core concerns. Any reluctance to do so will be incompatible with sustained and productive dialogue. The revival of a backchannel entails risks. It may be useful for ‘trouble-shooting’ (resolving knotty problems as they occur.) But a whole negotiating process cannot be assigned to a backchannel as it would fuel suspicions of unwarranted concessions. Progress on most issues will be easier than on core issues. Prolonged lack of progress on the core issues of Kashmir and ‘terrorism’ issues will, however, fatally damage the dialogue.

A number of issues should be reviewed like granting Most Favoured Nation trading status to India and expanding transit facilities on a reciprocal basis; a no-war pact before a Kashmir settlement is reached since war cannot provide a solution; similarly, a no-first use of nuclear weapons, since both countries have an assured second-strike capability against the other; bringing satisfactory closure to the Mumbai and Samjhauta Express trials; consolidating the LoC ceasefire understanding of 2003; reviving lapsed Kashmir and other CBMs; improving the human and political rights situation in Kashmir; finding mutually acceptable modalities for the participation of the APHC in talks on a Kashmir settlement; rapidly increasing road, rail and air connections to promote tourism, trade and investment, and mutual understanding; allowing access to the full range of each other’s media, including books, newspapers, films, TV channels, journals and magazines; and shifting from a geo-political emphasis to a geo-economic focus. India and Pakistan should not categorise each other as ‘enemy countries’.

None of the foregoing requires Pakistan to move away from UN resolutions on Kashmir or to refrain from publicly criticising India’s Kashmir policies. The Shimla Agreement acknowledges the positions of both countries on Kashmir. Nevertheless, India-Pakistan relations must respond to the governance and strategic imperatives of the 21st century.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, India and China and head of UN missions in Iraq and Sudan.