Dialogue to nowhere

Published July 20, 2021
The writer, a former ambassador, is adjunct professor at Georgetown University and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the National University of Singapore.
The writer, a former ambassador, is adjunct professor at Georgetown University and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the National University of Singapore.

WHAT happened to the hopes of better relations between India and Pakistan following the Feb 25, 2021, Kashmir ceasefire agreement? Has the backchannel that apparently produced the deal reached a dead end? Had the channel been addressing the core issues there would be little wonder if its work has stalled.

The two countries have numerous core issues, and they are not the same on both sides. There also exist other roadblocks in the way of a normal relationship. The customary diplomatic give and take is hard to apply in India-Pakistan relations especially as India feels it does not need to give any ‘concession’ to Pakistan because of power disparity. Without this, diplomacy dies.

Diplomats are trained to believe in dialogue. Of course, if the choice is to go to war or talk then talking is better anytime. But if you are not facing a war or war-like conditions you are dealing with a different situation. In this atmosphere to say that talks are always better than no talks is not quite true. Indeed, the opposite may often be true. The reality is whether or not India and Pakistan talk, their relationship remains the same.

It is a relationship like none other and it remains marred by lingering tensions rooted in religion, culture and identity, and conflicting versions of history and war. The burden of the past continues to oppress the present, making the relationship resistant to change. Their foreign policies, resting on divergent national purposes and moving in colliding orbits, make the prospect of change even harder. Each has remained a fixture of the other’s domestic politics further compromising the will to change.

Neither India nor Pakistan is now pushed about talking.

India thought it could comfortably establish its dominance in the region except that the Kashmir dispute stood in between. By his Aug 5, 2019, action, the anniversary of which we are approaching, Prime Minister Modi ‘removed’ that obstacle by putting the dispute beyond Pakistan’s diplomatic reach.

The Kashmir ceasefire agreement followed by the Pakistan leadership’s peace pitch last March at the Islamabad Security Dialogue may have acknowledged the new realities. But the move was not directed at India alone; in fact, it may not have been even targeted at India. Look at the context: the China-India border conflict, the unresolved Afghanistan crisis, the new Biden administration, US-China tensions, and Pakistan’s hope for a reset in its relations with the US.

With its peace pitch Pakistan may have wanted to indicate to Washington that it was not aligned with China against India, and its relationship with China was not part of any geopolitical competition and that it had room for ties with the US. And by stressing geoeconomics Islamabad hoped to blunt US opposition to CPEC and invite US investment.

Neither India nor Pakistan is now pushed about talking, mainly because the relationship is subordinate to a complex set of interests on both sides, domestic and external, serving purposes larger than their own ties. Externally, India benefits enormously from its relations with the US just as Pakistan does from its relations with China. The China-India conflict and US-China tensions are pulling India and Pakistan further apart. Economic relations could narrow the gap but their benefit remains doubtful.

Pakistan does however face a dilemma over what to do about Kashmir. Pakistan’s Kashmir policy has served Kashmiris as well as Pakistan’s security interests vis-à-vis India. Having brought the Kashmiris thus far, to now abandon them for the sake of relations with India would not just be immoral; it would also hurt Pakistan’s long-term interests in the region. Hegemony gets established when it is accepted.

If Pakistan cannot help the Kashmiris it should at least not demoralise them by ignoring them. Ironically, by slamming the door shut on the international community, India may have overreached itself diplomatically. In trying to make Pakistan irrelevant to Kashmir India has made it even more relevant. Both the Kashmiris and Pakistan have now nowhere else to go.

Small normalisation measures in their mutual interest like the LoC ceasefire deal are fine but any major India-Pakistan initiative should be linked by Pakistan to Kashmir. The need for the linkage in a dialogue has never been greater. If India is not interested in such a dialogue why should Pakistan be? What does it lose? It may even gain. If Pakistan wants to attract the international community’s interest it should avoid making relations look normal by a dialogue to nowhere.

Dialogues alone do not solve problems. You need to change the contexts in which they operate.

The writer, a former ambassador, is adjunct professor at Georgetown University and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the National University of Singapore.

Published in Dawn, July 20th, 2021



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