The French have a saying: "The more it changes, the more it remains the same".
Immediately after Mumbai 26/11, the Pakistan Prime Minister called our Prime Minister to express his deep shock and horror and offered to unearth the culprits. And immediately after Pathankot 1/1, the Pakistan Prime Minister called our Prime Minister to express his deep shock and horror and offered to unearth the culprits.
Back in 2008, the Pakistanis set up a special court to expeditiously try and punish the culprits. Now in 2016, the Pakistanis have set up a special Commission of Enquiry to expeditiously identify and punish the perpetrators.
Then, they said they would promptly process the evidence we had given them. Once again, they have promised to promptly process the evidence we have given them. But our evidence then has not satisfied them or their courts. It is highly doubtful that this time round our evidence will satisfy them or their courts.
Then, they went on to arrest Hafiz Saeed. He was later let off by the courts. Perhaps this time, to appease Modi, they might arrest Masood Azhar, who will later be let off by the courts. Then, they told us Hafiz Saeed's LeT (Lashkar-e-Taiba) was banned - but it resurfaced under another guise. Now they tell us Masood Azhar's Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) is banned - but it has resurfaced under another guise.
Seven years on, Mumbai remains in a tangle in Pakistan's judicial jungle. I am willing to place a small bet that seven years from now, Pathankot will remain in a similar tangle. We've been here before. There is no reason to believe anything will be different now.
What is different is that then the BJP lathered itself into a rage and started the mantra, "Talks and Terror can't go together". Now it seems they are impaled on the horns of a dilemma: should they let talks go on despite terror and thus save Modi's face, or let terror overtake talks and thus save Modi's chair?
For the moment, Modi's government is keeping all options open, hoping against hope that Nawaz Sharif will be "prompt and decisive" in taking action against Pakistanis responsible for Pathankot. But what is "prompt"? They're not saying. And what is "decisive"? They're not saying. They are just praying that Nawaz will come out with a form of words and some pro-forma action that will enable them to hold the scheduled Foreign Secretary-level talks, perhaps a few weeks later than the 15th January schedule.
But that initial round of talks is only a beginning. It is no more than the clerical job of determining dates and venues for the progress of the Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue (which, like everything the Modi government does, is nothing more than the new name for a process that goes back nearly two decades to 1997). That process will have to be carried forward step by step over an extended period of time, very possibly longer, much longer, than the three years available to the present Modi government. Controversies will beset the process. They will have to be patiently resolved. Dissent will have to be curbed. Consensus will have to be forged. Is that the style of the Modi government or the man who heads it?
When it comes to the really ticklish issues of Kashmir and terror, it will no more be a matter of juggling NSA talks before FS talks (or the other way round): it will require patience, non-partisanship and great sincerity and commitment to "uninterrupted and uninterruptible" dialogue to take the Manmohan-Musharraf "framework" for a final settlement of the Kashmir issue to its logical culmination. How can this be done when both Modi and Nawaz are in denial over what was accomplished in this regard on the back channel between 2004 and 2007 with the blessings of the political leadership of Dr. Manmohan Singh and President Pervez Musharraf?
And while all this is going on, there are bound to be elements, as much in Pakistani society at large as within the Pak establishment, who will resort to terror to sabotage the talks. When such terror attacks are repeated, will Modi's will to persist weaken or will he continue hoping that the Pak PM will call him to convey his condolences and set up one more Commission of Enquiry?
There is no sign of a strategy in the works. On the contrary, in place of a Pakistan policy we have a series of impetuous ad hoc steps taken on the spur of the moment, more designed to burnish one man's image than to tread a carefully drawn-up road map. Foreign policy cannot be a series of spurts and starts. It requires hard decisions - the hardest being the fact that whether we talk or not, terrorist attacks will be planned and executed and we need to know well in advance whether the BJP intend to follow their pre-Nawaz Birthday line of non-engagement with Pakistan until terror is ended or their sudden recent U-turn in favour of engagement even, perhaps, in spite of the Pathankot terror attack?
None of this is new. It could and should have been foreseen when Modi dropped by to say, "Happy Birthday", indeed, even earlier - from May 2014 onwards. But with his usual flair for the dramatic, Modi has preferred to reserve to himself the right to disrupt his own initiatives, most strikingly by twice over playing the "You-can't-talk-to-the-Hurriyat" card to abort the Indo-Pak dialogue even before it has quite begun. Even now, there is no agreement between Modi and Nawaz Sharif over whether or not Pakistan may continue their 15-year practice, started in Atal Behari Vajpayee's time, of consulting with the Hurriyat. The practice has done the Pakistanis little good and us no harm - but the Modi government has made such a hullaballoo over not permitting any contact between the Hurriyat and Pakistan that it is difficult to see how we can enforce the H-ban and still talk to Pakistan over a red-line that Pakistan does not accept.
If the dialogue is to move forward relentlessly (albeit, perhaps glacially) to its goal of stabilizing Indo-Pak relations, the first requirement is not headline-grabbing gestures at Head of Government level, but talks about talks at the working level to structure the dialogue as an uninterrupted and uninterruptible process that takes full account of pitfalls that are bound to be encountered, especially terror attacks, and makes provision for overcoming such hurdles while the talks proceed. This neither Modi nor Nawaz have done - and so, hanging over the negotiating table like Banquo's ghost, some fanatic or the other, very possibly helped by rogue elements in the establishment, will take it upon himself or themselves to set the clock back by launching an attack. Pathankot shows that there is no lack of Indian collaborators to further the nefarious designs of Pakistani terrorists. And the very poor response of our security establishment to the Pathankot attack brings up questions of India's responsibility for not foiling the attack.
Better that terror be deprived of its capacity to undermine talks than for terror to hold talks hostage to those who are dead set against the talks.
(Mani Shankar Aiyar is a Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha.)
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