As if by magic, the ‘Heart of Asia’ conference in Islamabad earlier this month turned out to be a deux machina for Pakistan and India. Suddenly, the tailspin stopped and a crash, nose first, averted.
On November 9, Pakistan’s National Security Adviser Sartaj Aziz and India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj issued a joint statement to pave the way for resumption of bilateral talks, and added a new shibboleth to the voluminous Indo-Pakistan literature on diplomacy – ‘comprehensive bilateral dialogue’, ditching the failed ‘composite dialogue’.
Rendezvous away from the media glare paid off: Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi met in Paris, while the two countries’ security advisers had their own powwow in Bangkok.
Many observers of the South Asia scene consider the Islamabad statement to be a breakthrough, even though all that the statement does is to pledge the two sides to talk on a range of issues.
Pakistanis noting with a sense of relief that Sartaj Aziz avoided another Ufa by ensuring that the CBD will not be confined to terrorism. Instead, it will include — and here you can give free rein to your pen and write as many issues as you remember and wish: from Tulbul to Kashmir, with terrorism and Mumbai thrown in for good measure.
As Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) Information Secretary Shireen Mazari, moved no doubt by partisan considerations remarked, while Mumbai was mentioned, Mr Aziz and Ms Sushma Swaraj chose not to include the Samjhota Express act of terror in the three-para statement.
More astonishingly, while the communiqué mentions issues like Kashmir and Siachen, which have defied a solution for decades, it fails to make any reference to the ‘achievables’ – like visa liberalisation, reopening the missions in Karachi and Mumbai and addressing the fishermen’s plight. How the talks will proceed now depends upon the foreign secretaries, who will meet – the date not yet specified – to work out “the modalities” of it all.
Many say Ms Swaraj came to Islamabad basically to attend the Heart of Asia conference, and the talks with Mr Aziz and the courtesy call on the prime minister were incidental. This is being uncharitable. As her sangfroid showed, she had come well prepared for bilateral talks; she didn’t fumble and bungle, appeared relaxed and perhaps had to show common sense and flexibility, because that was what the pressure on New Delhi by its Western friends was about. ‘No negotiations’ was a foolhardy policy impossible to justify, more so because Pakistan had all along been offering talks.
All along the year, there was a copious supply of provocations by India. Often tensions seemed to be spiralling out of control, especially in the beginning of the year when clashes along the Line of Control (LoC) and the working boundary achieved a nightmarish level.
India also supplied three helicopters to Afghanistan. Until then, India had confined its military support for Kabul to training. In August, Ms Swaraj sabotaged the NSA talks by insisting on a one-point terrorism agenda, and gave a 12-hour ultimatum to Mr Aziz to accept it, leaving the latter with no choice but to avoid a fruitless flight to New Delhi.
Earlier in May, Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar had said India would use terrorism to crush terrorism, evoking a prompt retort from Defence Minister Khawaja Asif, who said this constituted Indian admission of involvement in terror acts in Pakistan. On a less provocative and flippant note, Indian security agencies ‘arrested’ a Pakistani ‘spy’ pigeon.
What of the talks in the long run? Will there ever be substantial progress on the key issues?
We know the Modi government is not going to consider the utopian Chenab formula, nor are the diffident Pakistanis so unrealistic as to offer it; nor would Modi need be told by his generals that they were opposed to the tacit agreement between Benazir Bhutto and Rajiv Gandhi on demilitarising Siachen. But in spite of these formidable issues, the fact that the two sides have pledged to talk and to keep talking constitutes progress. It will lower the tension that has been in existence since the former Gujarat chief minister became India’s prime minister.
The “economic and commercial cooperation” the statement speaks of basically means India’s keenness for Pakistan to give it the most favoured nation treatment, something the PML-N is unlikely to do.
What the two sides should concentrate on is to maintain the spirit of detente generated by the joint statement by taking many confidence-building measures like stepped-up cultural interaction and visa liberalisation, especially for the old.
As for cricket buffs, well Shahrayar Khan used the best of his princely talents but failed. For the ‘captain’, Modi’s smile remained a smile. Why wouldn’t Modi remain Modi? Well go ahead and play with other cricketing powers to prove your worth, and try to make a success of the Pakistan Super League in the UAE. Don’t mourn. That’s how things south of the Himalayas are.