The Standoff in India-Pakistan Relations

Irreconcilable differences and mismatched expectations wrecked the Foreign Minister's summit between Pakistani External Affairs Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and his Indian counterpart S.M. Krishna last week in Islamabad. That has left the two countries at sea over where they go next for a diplomatic solution, or even if the process should continue.

Domestically, there is growing concern within the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance that the popular mood could turn against the party if the dialogue keeps moving from one flop show to another in the absence of a cohesive Indian policy towards Pakistan. This is a prospect that India's beleaguered political establishment can ill afford, saddled as it is with soaring inflation, deadly Maoist threats and the fast-approaching Commonwealth Games deadline, for which the country is far behind schedule.

There is disagreement as well between various Indian government agencies, triggering serious concern over the course of the Indo-Pakistani engagement. Should New Delhi merely accommodate Pakistan as a troublesome neighbor that must be suffered and thus contained? Or should India continue to seek to befriend Pakistan with the hope of resolving sensitive bilateral issues in the foreseeable future?

The public spat at the Krishna-Qureshi joint press conference marks a new nadir in Indo-Pakistani diplomacy. The two warring ministers squandered the opportunity to break the impasse created by the murderous terrorist attack in Mumbai in November of 2008 and flesh out ways to build mutual trust, cooperate against terror or identify a roadmap for the resumption of the peace process that has been stalled since the Mumbai terror attacks.

In fact the frequent failure of recent bilateral talks including earlier ones at Agra in 2001 and Sharm-el-Sheikh in 2008 has led New Delhi to the question whether India should seek to engage with Pakistan at all. What has contributed increasingly to this skepticism is that despite a gap of 15 years between coordinated bomb blasts which killed 250 people and injured 700 in Mumbai in March 1993 by Pakistani-based terrorists and the second attack on the city in 2008, diplomacy has not achieved any tangible results. Despite numerous attempts to revive an Indo-Pakistani dialogue in the intervening decade-and-a-half, Pakistan's unrelenting hostility towards India has remained unchanged.

This was reinforced by the National Security Advisor, Shivshankar Menon, who confirmed what Home Secretary G K Pillai had said earlier: The interrogation of David Coleman Headley, a Pakistan-based American citizen involved in the 26/11 attack, revealed a clear nexus between the terrorists, the official establishment and intelligence agencies in Pakistan.

And, in Menon's words, "the link is getting stronger." What the Headley revelations also do is to raise questions about the very premises of the Congress-led UPA government's Pakistan policy. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's belief that there can be normality in the near term with Pakistan through sustained dialogue increasingly sounds unconvincing.

Paradoxically, despite its attitude towards India, Pakistan has been able to gather more support from the global community than India can -- be it America (due to its strategic dependence on Pakistan for geopolitical reasons), the Arab nations, East Asia or even the rest of the subcontinent.

However, the repeated failure of Indo-Pakistani diplomatic talks underscores only one thing -- the inflexible positions adopted by the two nations and their unwillingness to accommodate each other's core concerns. It is this stance that is jeopardizing diplomacy and ruining the chances of achieving desirable results.

Foreign policy analysts suggest that it is time to rewrite Indian policy to factor in the new geopolitical realities – Pakistan's less-than-effective civilian government, and the fact that the ultimate levers of powers in India's neighborhood are controlled by the Pakistani Army if not the notorious Inter-Services Intelligence Bureau, known as the ISI.

"The irony is that issues like Kashmir, peace and security, Sir Creek, Kashmir and Siachen are subjects India and Pakistan have wasted several years of formal dialogue over without achieving any tangible progress," said Narottam Kapoor, senior professor, Political Science, at Delhi University. "Given the long-standing deadlock over proposals for verification of a mutual withdrawal, it's time both the nations resolved issues by thinking out of the box."

Perhaps the two nations can, suggests one school of thought, eschew the Composite Dialogue model that was crafted in 1997 and focus on how the Pakistani Army can be engaged fruitfully in foreign policy matters with India. This approach may just click considering that many of the bilateral problems involve a military solution. However, there is an ongoing contest between the civilian and military wings of the Pakistan establishment, meaning India needs to be cautious in engaging with the Pakistani Army without offending the sensibilities of the civilian government.

Abandoning dialogue, the moderates say, however, is not a good option as witnessed in the past. Even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has – at Sharm el-Sheikh last year and again at Thimphu – made out a strong case for engagement.

In the wake of the controversy that Krishna's visit to Islamabad has generated, Singh's critics are likely to reiterate that engagement has failed yet again. Already, India's opposition parties are crying themselves hoarse that New Delhi should break off its dialogue.

However, the stakes are so high on both sides that neither can afford to be deflected by diplomatic fireworks. The two need to focus on a dialogue structure which allows both to work towards a sustainable foreign policy solution.

As a former Pakistani High Commissioner to India wrote in The Times of India, "We need to move beyond symbolic gestures to game changers. The process of resolving major issues of concern to each side may take time but it must soon generate momentum and transform the context of our relationship so that solutions hitherto considered out of the question begin to beckon."

No cakewalk this. There are major attitudinal barriers and averse stake-holders in both countries who play the zero sum game. But gradually, if both nations seriously address each others' core issues of concern things just may fall in place. In India's case, it is dismantling structures of terrorism including assurances about prosecution of those implicated in the Mumbai atrocities, removing trade barriers, cultural and people-to-people exchanges, eschewing hostile disinformation, etc.

In the case of Pakistan, it will be a structured and substantive dialogue process, progress towards a Kashmir settlement, improvements in the human rights situation in Kashmir, non-interference in Balochistan, refraining from using America and Afghanistan as pressure points on Pakistan, improved cooperation on water management issues within the context of the Indus Water Treaty, etc.

"It's time we work out a cogent and workable strategy to deal with Pakistan. New Delhi should stay engaged with Pakistan but only after fresh deliberations," a senior Congress functionary told Asia Sentinel.

Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based journalist contactable at neetalal@hotmail.com