For a while now India-Pakistan relations have been so cold as to make you think the ice never melts. The two countries would be wise to open the windows and look out. The summer has given way to the monsoon humidity, and we will soon be talking about a nip in the air.
This time, we have to be clear that talks will have to be held in a very new paradigm. A lot has changed in the span of a year. It is clear that both sides can benefit from talks.
Engaged with a military confrontation with China, New Delhi could benefit by ratcheting down tensions on one front. Pakistan has gone nowhere with its sabre-rattling over New Delhi’s abrogation of Constitutional autonomy for the state of Jammu & Kashmir.
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Both countries could do with a thaw so they may have one headache less while focusing on myriad domestic and foreign policy challenges.
It would also help them both send out positive messages about themselves to the international community, which has been upset with Modi’s Hindu nationalist aggression and Pakistan’s issues before the Financial Action Task Force to combat terrorism.
A fresh new round of bilateral negotiations between India and Pakistan must take place, but in a new paradigm that sets new goals and expectations, and clear achievable goals.
There’s anxiety in India about a “two-front” joint military escalation by China and Pakistan. In Pakistan there’s been anxiety about India getting aggressive on the Pakistan border to divert public attention from its troubles on the China border
Peace by any other name
Firstly, they shouldn’t be called peace talks. Peace is not a word that’s appreciated much in a global order dominated by nationalist hawks. They should be called bilateral talks, period.
This would recognise the limited aim of these talks, namely conflict management. We have come so far away from any possibility of conflict resolution that right now we need to focus on managing hostility.
There’s anxiety in India about a “two-front” joint military escalation by China and Pakistan. In Pakistan there’s been anxiety about India getting aggressive on the Pakistan border to divert public attention from its troubles on the China border.
In both countries, those who don’t like the word peace would agree that India-Pakistan talks make sense at this juncture.
Diplomacy is war by other means, it is said. India and China, engaged in a military confrontation of a scale not seen since they fought a war in 1962, the two countries are still talking at all levels. They are not necessarily talking peace, but talking to prevent further escalation.
They’re trying to figure out how they can get the better of each other on the negotiating table, just as they are doing the same on the borders.
War by any other name
It is strange for India to say it wants to fight Pakistan only on the borders and international diplomacy, but not through direct diplomacy. It is like not exercising a strategic option.
Pakistan shows the limits of such abandonment when it pulled off the Kartarpur ‘googly’, catching India by surprise when it announced visa-free access to an important Siklh shrine on the border. Despite its coldness, New Delhi had to play along to respect Sikh sentiments.
The old fear that led to the abandonment of this option was of a terrors attack on Indian soil by those who don’t want ‘peace’.
Such attacks make it difficult for the Indian government to justify before Indian public opinion how it could reasonably talk peace with Pakistan when it alleged the terrorist attacks happened with the Pakistani government’s backing. By now we have a good answer to this problem: “surgical strikes”.
Limited military action against Pakistan by India in response to any major terrorist attack have proved to be very effective in soothing Indian public opinion and raising Narendra Modi’s political standing.
In other words, we could have a sustained bilateral process with terrorist attacks and Indian military counter-attacks taking place in the background. “Talks and terror can’t go hand in hand,” was the old Indian line, but now they can because terror is replied with surgical strikes, and talks with talks. No need to suspend talks at all.
Let diplomats do diplomacy
This time round, Narendra Modi need not put his political capital on these talks. Modi’s ostentatious summitry with Xi Jinping backfired just as his visit to Pakistan to meet Nawaz Sharif had resulted in a terrorist attack in Indian Punjab, suspending talks.
If Joe Biden wins in the United States, Modi’s over-personalised summitry with Donald Trump will also have gone in vain.
Talks are left best to people trained for them, namely diplomats. India-Pakistan talks need to become routine, low-profile business. Diplomats on both sides have the ability to do this. Instead of scaling down diplomatic missions, we need to let diplomats do their jobs.