Talks Meltdown

WHAT does yet another last minute cancellation of the talks mean for the relations between India and Pakistan? It is, without doubt, an alarming development. The situation is only going to go further downhill from here with every possibility of it degenerating into a violent conflict between the neighbours. That is, if urgent steps are not taken to restore some basic relations and put in place the necessary crisis tools to manage an extraordinary state of affairs, or a big terror incident.

The past year has seen the two countries drifting further apart.  Ever since Narendra Modi-led government took over in New Delhi, the ties have increasingly soured. Though Modi’s initial outreach to his counterpart Nawaz Sharif whom he invited to his swearing-in ceremony created hope of a renewed engagement between the estranged neighbours, the abrupt termination of the secretary level talks over Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit’s meeting with Hurriyat leader Shabir Shah brought the process back to a grinding halt. It seems that the hawks have once again succeeded in poisoning the atmosphere. The painstaking effort over the past year to normalize the relations, culminating in a new Modi-Sharif understanding at Ufa collapsed within twelve hours. The reason was New Delhi’s two redlines: one. Pakistan’s invite to Hurriyat for consultations with the National Security Advisor Sartaj Aziz. Second, New Delhi’s insistence that the NSA-level talks should be confined to the discussion of terror only. The foreign minister Sushma Swaraj attributed these redlines to the agreement at Ufa, a fact which was challenged by Aziz who was adamant that Kashmir should also be discussed. Aziz said that Ufa was also about the resumption of talks on all “outstanding issues” between the neighbours. “Everybody knows what is the most important issue between India and Pakistan,” Aziz said at a press conference hours before talks were called off. Pakistan refused to buy into India’s reasoning that the redress of India’s terror grievances will lead to the restoration of the composite dialogue between the neighbours.

If past is any guide, India’s concerns on terror have never been sufficiently addressed to persuade the country to move to the contentious political issues like Kashmir. Islamabad argues, and rightly so, that the terror springs from the unresolved political issues and addressing them will remove the very raison d’etere for terror. This approach stands to reason. During the promising 2003-07 peace process between the two countries, not only did the borders in Kashmir remain quiet, there was also a progressive decline in militancy in the state. But New Delhi’s frivolous redlines, particularly on Hurriyat, has now cast the prospects for a fresh engagement into a permanent doubt. Now either of the two countries have to back down on their basic agenda for the dialogue to resume. And this will not happen without the major loss of face for the country which makes this compromise. This hardly bodes well for the future and threatens to keep the neighbours locked in an endless hostility. This is hardly a good sign for the region which is witnessing a profound geopolitical transformation with all its attendant risks and challenges. With China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project and the growing US slant towards India, a new power game is unfolding in the region. Such a scenario will not only defer the resolution of the festering issues between the neighbours so necessary for the regional peace but also keep the region divided during a fraught transition to a new order post US exit from Afghanistan.

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