No breakthrough

India and Pakistan stick to their guns in a meeting between their foreign secretaries in Delhi

No breakthrough
Senior officials from about 40 countries and organizations that are participating in the Heart of Asia process or supporting the initiative met in Delhi on March 26.  But a bilateral meeting between the foreign secretaries of Pakistan and India on the margins stole the limelight from the regional initiative that strives to promote economic and security cooperation between Afghanistan and its neighbours for stabilizing the region and dealing with common challenges of poverty and terrorism.

The attention given to the meeting between Pakistan’s Aizaz Chaudhry and India’s S Jaishankar underscores the centrality of a Pakistan-India détente for regional peace. There were expectations that the two countries would agree to move past the Pathankot incident and go ahead with the Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue, or CBD. But the meeting that went on for a little more than an hour and a half said little about how the two countries planned to move towards restarting the peace talks that have been suspended for over two years now.

A vaguely worded statement about the meeting put out by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs said: “The two foreign secretaries exchanged ideas on taking the relationship forward and agreed to remain in touch.” The phrasing is similar to the one used while postponing the foreign secretaries’ meeting in the aftermath of the Pathankot attack, when the two sides said in a joint statement: “Pakistan and India have agreed to reschedule the Foreign Secretary-level talks in the very near future.” It has been over four months since then, but the planned meeting to work out a schedule for the CBD is yet to happen.
It is difficult for Modi to appear soft on Pakistan

It would not be farfetched to assume that the Chaudhry-Jaishankar meeting in Delhi did not achieve any breakthrough on getting the CBD back on track. The headlines emerging from the meeting were about Pakistan emphasizing that Kashmir was a core issue in the bilateral relationship and India telling Pakistan not to be in denial about terrorism hurting mutual ties. The differences were to pronounced that a joint statement could not be issued.

On the sidelines of a Heart of Asia ministerial meeting in Islamabad last year, the two countries had agreed to begin a comprehensive bilateral dialogue. The agreement was reinforced during Indian Premier Narendra Modi stopover in Lahore in December.

A series of social media messages on the meeting sent out by the Pakistani Foreign Office said Islamabad hoped that the two countries would remain committed to a sustained, meaningful and comprehensive dialogue process, and called for an early convening of CBD.

The differences in the Indian and Pakistani statements unmistakably point towards a fundamental difference between the two sides on the nature of a future dialogue. Indians want terrorism to be the main agenda of the dialogue, almost to the exclusion of all other contentious issues, whereas the Pakistani side is adamant that all issues should be taken up simultaneously.

This difference is not procedural, even though there have been agreements in the past about discussing all outstanding issues. It is rather a matter of principle for both Delhi and Islamabad, on which neither is ready to compromise. Indians have been fairly consistent with their position, firmly holding on to a single set of postulates, whereas the Pakistani position has kept evolving at least in terms of how it has been phrased on various occasions. The Ufa statement is a case in point, in which the Kashmir issue was left out from the operational paragraphs of the joint statement, and only when criticism started to mount, the Pakistani government took refuge behind the preamble, which said the two countries “were prepared to discuss all outstanding issues”. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif did not follow the tradition of meeting Kashmiri leaders during his visit to New Delhi for Modi’s inauguration, and an Iftar reception for Kashmiri leaders at the Pakistani embassy in the Indian capital was canceled ahead of the twoprime ministers’ meeting in Ufa.

This wavering has not helped Pakistan’s cause. It not only sent the wrong signals to the other side about how strongly the government is adhering to its position on Kashmir, it has created doubts within the country and has now even started playing on the minds of Pakistani negotiators holding talks with Indian interlocutors. This probably explains why Pakistani officials were in haste to share Secretary Chaudhary’s talking points with the media, affirming that he had raised the Kashmir issue and other topics of concerns even as the meeting was underway.

While the Pakistani side is constrained by such considerations, PM Modi’s government is finding itself hostage to the position BJP had been maintaining on ties with Pakistan in its election rhetoric before coming to power.

The absence of any concrete progress on Pathankot, which was blamed on Pakistani militant group Jaish-e-Muhammad, and the ongoing state elections in India, where BJP is trying to expand beyond its traditional strongholds, makes it even more difficult for Modi to appear soft on Pakistan. Meanwhile, the predicament of Mr Sharif, who is embroiled in multiple issues at home – opposition’s call for accountability in the wake of Panama Leaks and the military’s pressure for a counter-terrorism operation in Punjab, just to name a few – is no different.

Therefore, it is not difficult to explain why the post-meeting statements by India and Pakistan seemed to be addressing their respective domestic audiences instead of the bilateral relations and how it is envisioned to move out of the current impasse.

What one could gather from the Indian and Pakistani media statements is that as Secretary Chaudhary raised the issues of Kashmir, RAW’s involvement in subversive activities in his country (specifically the capture of Indian spy Kulbhushan Yadav from Balochistan), and “the environment being created in India” for the release of those involved in the Samjhauta Express bombing, his Indian counterpart responded by asking Pakistan not to “be in denial on the impact of terrorism” by Pakistan based groups on mutual relations. Jaishankar further called for “early and visible progress” in Pathankot investigations, expediting the Pakistani trial of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, and Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar’s listing at the United Nations, in addition to demanding consular access to the detained spy Yadav.

Given the state of Pakistan-India ties, it would be unwise to expect any major breakthrough in the near future.

Any workable plan for rapprochement should have two basic elements. On the one hand, India would have to agree to simultaneous discussions on terrorism concerns and the Kashmir dispute, while on the other, both the governments would have to lower the rhetoric at home that later denies them space for negotiation during the bilateral dialogue.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad


Twitter: @bokhari_mr