This Article is From Aug 19, 2014

PM is Right. Pakistan Can Wait for Talks.

(Ashok Malik is a columnist and writer living in Delhi)

Several reasons can and will be cited for the cancellation of the India-Pakistan Foreign Secretaries' talks. For a start, what would the talks be about? The meeting of the two Prime Ministers, Nawaz Sharif and Narendra Modi, on May 27, just a day after the new Indian leader had taken office, was high on symbolism but low on substance.

This was not unexpected, given the meeting was essentially a gesture of 'let's-get-to-know-each-other' goodwill, just after South Asian heads of government had been invited to the swearing-in ceremony of the NDA government. As such, the Sharif-Modi encounter was in no way part of a structured and thought-out process of engagement between the two governments.

Given this backdrop, it was never clear what the Foreign Secretaries would achieve. At best, they would design or discuss the design of future talks, whether these be regarded as a successor to the "comprehensive dialogue" or otherwise.

That apart, conditions in Pakistan, ambiguous even in May, have got even more confused. The relationship between the Sharif government and the army has been testy. Most recently, public demonstrations led by maverick politicians such as Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri - both said to be proxies for the Pakistan army - have left the Sharif government weak and its sustainability under question.

Indeed, the current escalation in violence on the Line of Control in Kashmir and the international border is being linked by Indian officials to the generals in Rawalpindi wanting to send a menacing signal to Sharif.

To be honest, some of these trends were visible even in May, when the two Prime Ministers agreed that the Foreign Secretaries should meet; or two months later - in the fourth week of July - when the dates for the Foreign Secretary level talks were finally set. So what has changed in the past few days?

The answer is in the Jammu and Kashmir election. Due in November, this is planned as the third in a series of peaceful, free and fair assembly elections in the state - after 2002 and 2008. For Modi, the Jammu and Kashmir election represents both a test as well as a commitment. He cannot afford to fail where two previous Prime Ministers, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, succeeded.

As it happens, even if his Pakistani interlocutors agree with him on everything else, they are unlikely to share Modi's hopes and aspirations for a peaceful and legitimate election in Jammu and Kashmir. Like in 2002 and 2008, they will attempt to thwart it or present it as somehow incomplete.

The meeting of the Pakistani High Commissioner in Delhi with the All-Party Hurriyat Conference, the pro-separatism collective in the Valley, has to be seen in this context. Like in 2002 and 2008, the Hurriyat is certain to be pushed and encouraged by the Pakistani establishment to boycott the election, to urge voters not to turn up at polling stations and to run a propaganda offensive painting the election as a sham.

Following the invitation from the Pakistan High Commission, Shabir Shah, one of the Hurriyat leaders, described the group as a "basic party" to the Kashmir issue. Did it make sense for the Modi government to accept this quietly and to acquiesce to the idea of the salience of Hurriyat to the political process in Jammu and Kashmir, even as Hurriyat boycotted and worked against an election that is just three months away? At the very least, what message would it send to the People's Democratic Party, the National Conference and others in the Valley who are actually participating in the election?

Diplomacy is a child of opportunity and timing. It may be all very well for trade ministers to meet and discuss bilateral commerce between India and Pakistan. Yet, any serious conversation that touches upon Kashmir can only take place when both sides are ready for it. Three months before Kashmir votes, with Pakistan making apparent its opposition to that election, the timing doesn't suit India.

It can be argued it was always obvious Pakistan would seek to sabotage the Jammu and Kashmir election, so why did the Modi government agree to the foreign secretaries meeting at all? Perhaps it found it difficult to say "no" so bluntly. Perhaps it was looking for a chance to defer the talks anyway. Perhaps the Pakistani provocation in inviting the Hurriyat conglomerate was too politically sensitive to ignore.

Whatever the truth, the fact is Modi's - and India's - priority is the Jammu and Kashmir election. Pakistan can wait.

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