India and Pakistan have not been able to reschedule a postponed meeting between their foreign secretaries

Four months after a meeting between their foreign secretaries was postponed for an unspecified date in “very near future” following the militant attack on the Indian Airforce base in Pathankot, Pakistan and India have not been able to convene the meeting again to chart out their bilateral dialogue.

Not only have Islamabad and Delhi failed to live up to the promise of regrouping after the initial emotions over Pathankot subside, the impasse is worsening. The latest addition to the issues holding back progress is the capture of Indian spy Kulbushan Jhadav, reportedly a serving Navy officer, and growing noise in Islamabad and Rawalpindi over RAW’s subversive operations in Pakistan.

Amidst this uncertainty, which by no means is new to Pakistan-India dialogue, the only response that one gets to hear from the foreign ministries in Delhi and Islamabad is that the “two countries are in touch” and “modalities for the foreign secretaries’ meeting are being worked out”. What are those modalities that are taking so long to finalize? Prime Ministers Nawaz Sharif and Narendra Modi had decided during their Lahore meeting to start talking under the new name of Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue, and had also mandated their foreign secretaries to meet and decide the timetable for the new engagement.
The two leaders tried to circumvent larger issues

In background discussions, diplomats from both countries concede that no concrete progress had been made so far towards holding a meeting of the foreign secretaries. The delay has already degenerated into a blame game between the two sides over who is responsible for the stalemate. Pakistanis have been on the record blaming India for not being forthcoming, creating hurdles, and impeding the normalization process. Pakistan’s High Commissioner to India Abdul Basit had pointed this out in his much talked about statement about the dialogue process being suspended. He said it was India that was dithering. Basit’s statement was downplayed by FO Spokesman Nafees Zakaria at the weekly media briefing, where he said that options could not be foreclosed and dialogue was the best option. Advisor on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz also talked during his visit to London this week about the process being suspended and going nowhere.

The Indians, are, meanwhile consistently alleging that civil-military differences in Pakistan over normalization of ties with Delhi were behind the situation. But, at the same time, one must acknowledge the small steps the two have taken over the past few months – Pakistan sharing a terror alert with India, a Pakistani security team undertaking a first-ever visit of its kind to India to investigate the allegations that Pakistani nationals were involved in Pathankot incident, and the relative calm on Line of Control and Working Boundary barring isolated ceasefire violations.

Analyzing the various initiatives taken since Modi government came to office in 2014, one inevitably comes to the conclusion that the forward movement is being impeded by the short-cuts that were attempted, by circumventing some of the bigger issues in the relationship. Whether it was Nawaz Sharif’s visit to Delhi to attend Modi’s inauguration and subsequent exchange of gifts between the two leaders, the secret meeting of the two prime ministers in Kathmandu on fringes of SAARC Summit in 2014, the meeting in Ufa on margins of the SCO Summit, or the brief encounter in Paris which started a chain of meetings leading up to Modi’s unprecedented stopover in Lahore for delivering birthday greetings to his counterpart, all failed to fully achieve their objectives, because these engagements centered around two leaders – Modi and Sharif – instead of being based on a long-lasting institutional mechanism.

Alongside, there are apprehensions in Pakistan that while pursuing selective engagement with it, India has been employing various tactics to contain Pakistan on the international front, foment instability within the country, and much worse, exploit the civil-military imbalance here. Critics of Modi’s policy towards Pakistan also point towards the disconnect between BJP government’s hypernationalist policies at home and its strategy for normalizing ties with Islamabad. Modi’s Pakistan policy has been hamstrung by his own anti-Pakistan rhetoric in the past.

One recent instance is the visit of an investigation team from Pakistan to India in connection with the Pathankot attack, allegedly carried out by Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Muhammad. The visit gave the impression of progress in ties and led to hopes that the dialogue process would move ahead from there. But, in the face of criticism at home, Delhi has started insisting on Pakistan allowing an Indian investigation team to make a similar trip to question the detained JeM leaders.

Even as Sartaj Aziz said in an interview that Pakistan could consider the Indian request, Pakistani authorities are not convinced about usefulness of the trip.

Pakistani officials say that since the case has to prosecuted in Pakistan, against Pakistani nationals, it is for Pakistani investigators to collect the evidence. The Indians, they believe, would instead use the issue for politics.

As the two neighbours struggle to deal with deeper problems in their relation, they should develop counter-terrorism cooperation, whose early indications were seen last month.

The writer is a freelance journalist

based in Islamabad


Twitter: @bokhari_mr