When Indian Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, left for Islamabad to attend the 12th SAARC summit, he ruled out any possibility of bilateral talks with Pakistan. There were no indications whatsoever of any intention to resume a dialogue, the need for which the absurd geopolitics of the Subcontinent has sustained precisely by interrupting it periodically for all manner of spurious reasons. But, with all the predictable unpredictability of such tire-some diplomacy, within hours of reaching Islamabad, Vajpayee reversed his stated position and declared that India is never shy of talking and expressed readiness to resolve all pending differences with Pakistan, including those that revolve around the Jammu and Kashmir dispute. Three days of hectic talks followed that statement which resulted in a joint statement by the two countries expressing their resolve to resume talks. An event that had been staged on the sidelines of the SAARC jamboree eventually sidelined the main summit and itself became the principal draw, reducing the Southasian body to its customary insignificance as the ceremonial proxy for the distant dream of regional co-operation.
The unfolding of events at Islamabad was more or less on expected lines but it definitely raised the level curiosity as to what exactly transpired between the leader-ship of the two countries. Those who have watched India-Pakistan developments will not pin much hope on such joint statements as this could be just another pause in the never-ending acrimony that defines relations between the two countries. To believe that India will give Kashmir on a platter to Pakistan or that Pakistan will forfeit its claim over Jammu and Kashmir is the kind of naiveté that the fifty-year history of acrimony does not permit. In which case, what was the dramatic trigger that gave rise to the desire to resume talks that, at least for the present, do not inspire any confidence about their capacity to bury the past?
There are a few factors which may be compelling India to talk about bringing the Kashmir issue to the table earlier than later. The genesis of this can be traced to the early 1980s when the US introduced terrorism to this part of the world to evict the Soviets from Afghanistan. Even as the US came and left and then again re-entered Afghanistan the spectres of that policy continue to haunt the ‘war against terror’. Given the thrust of US foreign policy in the region, there is little mileage that India can extract inter-nationally, even if it were to join the coalition against ‘terror’ by harping on the unfortunate events in the valley as a special regional manifestation of a global phenomenon and in which Pakistan has a hand.
Further, India has possibly also started realising that it cannot forever continue to play the old game in Jammu and Kashmir. It may, therefore, have dawned on all but the hardcore hawks in the Indian administration that it will be more prudent to resolve the issues which lie at heart of the militancy than to take on causalities on a daily basis. The toll of permanently combating militancy may well be beginning to tell sufficiently on members of the Indian establishment to force them to consider an alternative approach that need not necessarily culminate in a resolution of the bilateral dispute.
India also had to do some drastic rethinking when it gained nothing from all its frantic and ungainly attempts to entice the US to setup base in the country after 9/11. New Delhi’s calculation was that the US would help it in dismantling the ‘terror’ infrastructure in Pakistan, which in turn would cause the problem of Jammu and Kashmir to vanish into thin air. However, for the managers of US policy, practical geo-strategic compulsions proved to be far stronger than the allurements of all that the Indian foreign policy establishment had to offer. The US opted for the strategically more obvious choice that seemed to have escaped the Indian establishment completely. Now, even after two years of Americans presence in the region not only has there been no great change in the ground situation, India has also been forced to become defensive after its specta-cular failure in weaning away US support for Pakistan.
But the one event that served as the catalyst for the Indian decision to change tracks on the Kashmir issue was the invasion of Iraq by the “coalition of the willing”. The precedent set by the US in brushing aside all international objections and bulldozing its way into a sovereign country set off alarm bells in New Delhi. In a swiftly evolving international scenario, where the US as the only super-power has begun meddling in the global trouble spots, Indian policy makers had reason to seriously rethink their Pakistan policy. The realisation seems to have dawned that it is better to talk about negotiations on India’s own terms than to be hamstrung by talks mandated by a narcissistic superpower out to resolve matters to its own advantage.
However, this hard thinking about the negotiated approach came about only after India considered and abandoned as un-feasible all its options to go to war with Pakistan. Even in the Kargil skirmish of 1999, India considered and then refrained from crossing the Line of Control. However, the most defining moment arrived when New Delhi brought Operation Parakram to a close and pulled back its troops after keeping them in forward positions for more than a year, following the attack on parliament on 13 December 2001. Military experts, the very ones who had in 1987 advocated Operation Brass Tacks, cautioned the government that a military adventure would not necessarily result in an outright victory and that such a conflagration could go out of hand, particularly in the light of nuclear parity between the two countries. The net result: India was left with no choice but to back down and resume the rhetoric of resuming talks with Pakistan.
If these were the compulsions operating on India, Pakistan too was faced with exigencies that made it realise the need to break with the past and to do, if nothing else, at least diplomatic business with India. The sectarian violence in Pakistan has compli-cated matters for the ruling regime as it has begun to attract consi-derable international criticism, since Islamabad cannot be seen to be openly endorsing violence in Indian Kashmir and yet opposing it internally. The attempts on the life of the president general in December 2003 have also helped reinforce the idea that militancy in the vicinity is not conducive to the health of the state and its dignitaries. There is an inexorably self-consuming logic to the strategy of military-backed militancy. This realisation may well have induced Pakistan to eventually give a categorical commitment to India that its territory would not be used for anti-Indian activity.
Another most important commitment Pakistan made was to shelve the demand for the implementation of the United Nations Security Council resolutions on Kashmir if India was interested in resolving the issue through other means. The non-implementation of several UN resolutions, like the one on Palestine, has made Pakistan realise that dwelling at unnecessary length on a plebiscite in Kashmir is unlikely to take it anywhere. Islamabad had to recognise of late that the international community is not particularly interested in implementing UN resolutions and it is required for the conflicting parties themselves to sort out their problems. This in fact is a major concession from Pakistan as the past 50 years have seen the country emphatically asserting at various international fora that there is no alternative but for India to implement the UN resolution.
The final commitment that Pakistan made, and which was a clincher for India to reciprocate by expressing its readiness to resolve matters through talks, was to seek a solution to the Kashmir issue outside the division of its territory on religious lines. India in return made a commitment to Pakistan that it is ready to seek a solution to the problem which will be to the satisfaction of all parties concerned.
It is too early to say whether a fresh round of talks will resolve all the outstanding differences between India and Pakistan. However, both the countries have definitely made a rhetorical shift, and at least some of what they are saying is a departure from the clichés of the past. It now remains to be seen if this change in rhetoric is simply a forerunner of the clichés of the future. The question is an important one because Southasia is officially nuclear and there are no systems in place to ensure that congeni-tally incompetent regimes do not end up actually doing what they may only intend merely to threaten to do.