The decision by New Delhi and Islamabad to resume structured bilateral dialogue, seven years after the composite dialogue got derailed following the Mumbai terrorist attacks, is a forward movement. But it needs to be viewed with cautious optimism as the history of many such attempts reveal.
There was expectancy in the air since Prime Minister Narendra Modi met his counterpart Nawaz Sharif in Paris on the margins of the Climate Conference on November 30, and news of the secret meeting of the National Security Advisors (NSAs) from the two countries in Bangkok on December 6 came into the open.
After the green signal from two PMs, the way for resumption of dialogue was prepared by the NSAs. Understanding evolved in Bangkok readied the ground for external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj to lead the Indian delegation to participate in the Heart of Asia conference on Afghanistan in Islamabad last week during which she met Pakistani leaders, including the Prime Minister.
It appeared impossible till last month, as the NDA government as well as the ruling BJP were talking tough saying that unless Islamabad took concrete action on the Mumbai attacks in 2008, there could be no bilateral talks.
Pakistan too had backed out from the Ufa statement of July that had omitted any reference to Jammu and Kashmir and its premier had to bow before domestic pressure and the army.
Continued tension between the two nuclear power neighbours was a source of concern to world powers, particularly the US. Washington had been nudging both New Delhi and Islamabad to resume the stalled dialogue. US President Barack Obama, in his meeting with Prime Minister Modi in Paris, is understood to have given a definite push for talks. Visits of Nawaz Sharif and Pakistan Army Chief Raheel Sharif to Washington in recent months enabled the US administration to push the two South Asian neighbours for talks.
The joint statement, issued after talks between Swaraj and Pakistan PM’s advisor on foreign affairs Sartaj Aziz, takes care of all concerns. Pakistan has given an assurance on “early completion of Mumbai attacks trial” and “resolved to cooperate to eliminate terror”, as India agreed to put Kashmir on the agenda.
Almost three years after the “resumed dialogue” was stalled after the killing of Indian soldiers, including one who was beheaded triggering Swaraj’s suggestion to behead 10 Pakistani soldiers, India and Pakistan have agreed to restart the dialogue under the new rubric of “Comprehensive Dialogue”.
That two governments have decided to discuss terrorism separately and have given the task to their NSAs is a development worth taking note of. For the first time, the issue is not being left to be handled by diplomats but by operations experts who know the dynamics, tactics and geography of terrorism very well.
Pakistan’s NSA Lt Gen (Retd) Nasir Khan Janjua will talk to India’s Ajit Doval on all aspects of terrorism. Talks will not be subject to ups and downs of the Comprehensive Dialogue whose dates of commencement and modalities are going to be decided by the foreign secretaries of the two countries soon.
Janjua, who is said to enjoy the army chief’s confidence and replaced Aziz as NSA recently, is expected to play a vital role because his presence indicates that Pakistan’s military establishment is on board with Sharif’s government on the need for a bilateral dialogue with India.
Experts are unanimous that success or failure of the talks depends heavily on the role that Pakistan’s armed forces, mainly the Army, decides to play. Therefore, it is a positive development that the Sharif government has decided to initiate the dialogue process in consultation with the vital pillar of Pakistan society.
India and Pakistan have broken the ice. What is needed now is the political will of both governments to stay on course, because there is no substitute to engagement. Talks alone can pave the way for the ultimate resolution of outstanding issues. By remaining vigilant, New Delhi would have to traverse the long and tortuous road of bilateral ties with Pakistan. email@example.com
Misra is a Senior Fellow at New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation