x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

India and Pakistan relations are stuck in intensive care

Sixty-four years after the partition of India and Pakistan, bilateral relations still seem stuck in an interminable loop of the film Groundhog Day.

Sixty-four years after the partition of India and Pakistan, bilateral relations still seem stuck in an interminable loop of the film Groundhog Day, in which the protagonist repeats the same sequence of events day after day.

For Pakistan, which celebrates its national day today, diplomacy has largely been defined by terrorist operations ranging from the 2001 raid on parliament in New Delhi to the 2008 Mumbai attacks. And India, which marks its independence tomorrow, has had to walk a knife's edge between holding Pakistan accountable and moving forward on peace talks.

The most recent high-level talks in New Delhi late last month left many sceptics underwhelmed: another day and another round of all-too-familiar platitudes. And the goal of next month's meeting of diplomats in Islamabad - to establish CBMs, or "confidence building mechanisms" - rings more of jargon than substance.

Optimists, however, argue that given the combustible nature of relations, the fact that the two sides meet at all represents progress. Considering that barely three weeks before the latest talks, a terror attack in Mumbai killed 24 people, there were fears that the meeting would not go ahead. July 13's bombing has now been linked to home-grown terror cells, but Pakistan's history of fostering groups such as Lashkar-i-Taiba means every terror attack is a test of relations. So, when talks did go ahead, an Indian diplomat declared: "The patient is off life-support and is breathing on his own now."

This may not be the most ringing endorsement of the health of India-Pakistan relations. But a willingness to talk despite repeated setbacks offers hope, at least in the view reflected in much of the media and political reactions. But substantive progress will depend on the Pakistani military establishment, the real power in Islamabad.

India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is often credited with (and sometimes condemned for) an unwavering commitment to the peace process by staying engaged despite provocations and Pakistan's failure to prosecute the network behind the 2008 Mumbai attacks. But the Indian public is losing patience and hardline right-wing nationalists are pushing their hawkish line.

Defined by three outright wars and high tension for most of the past 65 years, relations have a history of one step forward followed by two steps back. India's view of peace talks is dimmed by memories of the 1999 Kargil border conflict, which it blames on the Pakistani army's attempt under General Pervez Musharraf to sabotage the peace process.

Since then, there has been a pattern of terrorist attacks immediately before a round of crucial talks or at the first sign of progress. Pakistan publicly blames "non-state actors", while India insists that Islamabad take responsibility for any attack launched from its soil.

Yet, thanks to behind-the-scenes US pressure, India has been persuaded to formally delink talks from terrorism, and pursue the so-called "composite dialogue" on issues ranging from Kashmir to cross-border bus routes. That agreement made the recent Delhi meeting possible. And while US influence played a role, it was India's decision to resume the dialogue suspended since the Mumbai attacks, partly based on the realisation that Pakistan was using the diplomatic vacuum to portray New Delhi as being unreasonable. There was also a recognition that stopping talks did not equate to stopping the attacks.

Progress on the two major points - terrorism and Kashmir - has been elusive, but relations are incrementally getting better. Plodding diplomacy might be the best description, however, and if any success can be claimed, it is only because both sides set such a low threshold of expectations for talks. Aside from the rhetoric, the only noteworthy decisions were easing travel across the Line of Control (between Pakistan-administered Kashmir and India's Jammu and Kashmir) and boosting cross-border trade.

And, of course, there were talks about talks. Pakistan's new foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar spoke of her desire to make India-Pakistan dialogue an "uninterrupted and uninterruptible process". The noble sentiment prompted the senior Congress Party leader, Mani Shankar Aiyar, to declare that it was the "happiest day'' of his life. Ms Khar also acknowledged that Pakistan had to fight the "scourge" of terrorism.

The problem is that similar promises have been reneged on in the past. What is different this time? And does Ms Khar have enough independent power to make a difference - when Pakistan's military usually decides foreign policy, especially in relation to India? Her early insistence on meeting Kashmiri separatist leaders at the risk of displeasing her hosts was seen as a nod to the real seat of power in Islamabad.

Publicly, however, Ms Khar - Pakistan's first woman foreign minister and, at 34, its youngest - made all the right noises. She spoke about a "changed mindset" and a "new generation" of Indians and Pakistanis. In fact, she distracted many from the meagre substance of the talks by dazzling the fashionistas with a designer wardrobe and her charm offensive. Even inveterate Pakistan-bashers acknowledged the "Khar effect", although there were attendant conspiracy theories.

So the young foreign minister's persona, if not her policy, brought a breath of fresh air to otherwise moribund proceedings. And after 64 years of the same hostile routine, even a change of window dressing is welcome.

 

Hasan Suroor is a deputy editor of The Hindu newspaper