Perhaps it is the environment of the Non-Aligned Summit that induces mood swings of great amplitude in India’s top political leadership. Perhaps there are other forces at work, quietly and unobtrusively, compelling shifts of strategy and direction in the engagement between India and her troubled western neighbour.
When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari in Yekaterinburg, Russia, on the sidelines of a regional summit in June, he made little effort to be polite. All he had to talk to Pakistan about, was the use of her soil by militant groups engaged in terrorist violence against India, he said, to great consternation, verging on outrage in Pakistan over his suspension of normal diplomatic niceties.
Though expectations were low, the Indian Prime Minister managed to turn his mid-July meeting with his Pakistani counterpart on the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Summit in Egypt, into a virtual feast of concord. Landing back in India, Manmohan Singh has found the glow fading rapidly, as he has confronted outraged cries of betrayal by the main opposition party and a conspicuous lack of enthusiasm within his own fold.
The art of diplomacy is built in part, on turning a delicate phrase to obscure the true intentions of both sides. But it has taken a special clumsiness in language to make a good outcome appear a near disaster. A key formulation of the Joint Statement that came out of the Prime Ministerial meeting at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Shaikh, is the supposed removal of the linkage between the “Composite Dialogue” the two nations have been engaged in, and their own battles against terrorism.
The “Composite Dialogue” has had a fitful career since it began more than a decade ago, but there is no disguising the fact that it has failed to address even the more tractable among the disputes that have bedevilled relations between India and Pakistan. That it has nevertheless acquired a mystique quite independent of its actual yield of political dividends, is a consequence of a peculiar kind of mindset in Indian thinking on Pakistan. Dialogue has become an end in itself and a reward for Pakistan showing sufficient seriousness in tackling militant groups using its soil for attacks on India.
The unstated premise here is that terrorism is India’s special concern and Pakistan’s special responsibility. And if Pakistan faced up to its responsibilities, India would be magnanimous enough to talk, though with little assurance of yielding any ground.
With this spurious linkage removed, Pakistan will now presumably continue to combat terrorism even if the rewards it obtains in terms of the returns on the composite dialogue are meagre. And the Sharm el-Shaikh statement does record significant forward steps, as well as a convergence of perceptions between the two countries in bringing to justice the perpetrators of last November’s terrorist outrage in Mumbai
There is in other words, a perfectly reasonable construction that can be placed on this aspect of the Sharm el-Shaikh joint statement, which undermines all claims that it constitutes a betrayal of India’s long-standing position. The political hysteria rather seems to be born of a quite different cause, indeed, with an aspect of it that mentions what has for long been unmentionable in Indian strategic circles.
An official statement issued after a high-level political engagement between national governments, cannot afford to leave stray sentences around, unattached by either logic or syntax with its main body. For this reason, it is difficult to give any credence to editorial comment, which has tended to portray the reference to the trouble in Balochistan province of Pakistan, as something devoid of long-term consequence. Immediately after affirming that the two governments would “share real time, credible and actionable information on any future terrorist events”, the statement records the Pakistan Prime Minister as having “mentioned” that certain “threats” existed in Balochistan and other areas. The implication, clearly, is that India could do something about these.
To nobody’s surprise, this one line in the statement has shocked and horrified the Indian intelligence community. Beyond all the simulated outrage over the supposed delinking of the composite dialogue from action against terrorism, this is the line that could have fateful political consequences in the years ahead.
The template for high-level political engagement between India and Pakistan has for years seemingly been cast in stone. India has held fast to the course of blaming Pakistan for every terrorist outrage that occurs on its soil. And Pakistan has said quite simply, that credible movement forward in the “core issue” of Kashmir would bring about a miraculous cessation of terrorist activity in India. Never before has the lethal political contest between the countries’ intelligence agencies, seeking to outdo the other in the pain it can inflict, been mentioned in a political communiqué. The Sharm el-Shaikh declaration alters that reality.
When India and Pakistan agreed, on the sidelines of the Havana Non-Aligned Summit of 2006, on a joint institutional mechanism to combat terrorism, there were scarcely concealed grimaces within the intelligence agencies, which saw the prospect of information sharing with counterparts across the border, as a fatal infringement of their autonomy. That mechanism has had expectedly, a rather dismal track record ever since. The Sharm el-Shaikh statement resurrects that process and idea and explicitly acknowledges that terrorism is both a shared concern and responsibility. That really is its long-term significance. Whether long-term dividends will flow from this new approach however, depends decisively on how far intelligence agencies on both sides of the bristling border can be compelled to accept new norms of political accountability.