Talks will call the bluffs in Rawalpindi, Islamabad & Washington
The sudden and unexplained manner in which the UPA government offered to resume talks with Pakistan has injected a lot of confusion in the public discourse. The confusion—and the political & strategic costs arising from it—must be blamed on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. A move as significant as the restart of official bilateral discussions should have been properly explained to the public by the prime minister. Dr Singh remains silent, as usual, leading a thousand blind men and women to describe the elephant as they sense it. What follows, therefore, is the account of Blind Man of Hindoostan #1001.
Talking to the Pakistani government is unlikely to achieve any substantial progress in bilateral relations. The Zardari-Gilani government is a joke. The military-jihadi complex under General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani does not perceive any accommodation with India as being in its interests. The Pakistani economy and society itself is in a tailspin, perhaps even a terminal decline. Even if India could find a party on the other side of the border with sufficient authority and credibility to engage in serious negotiations, it is unlikely that such a party can strike a deal. And if a deal were to be struck, it is likely to be repudiated by whoever comes next. Therefore, anyone who bases the argument for talks on premises like “Let’s give dialogue a chance” or “Because we must” or any other similar notion cannot be taken seriously.
The biggest threat to international security, not just India’s national security, is Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex. Pakistan cannot be at peace with itself, or with its neighbours, or with the world until and unless the military-jihadi complex is contained, dismantled and ultimately destroyed. This grand task is neither India’s alone, nor is India capable of engaging in it all by itself.
If US troops were not engaged in Afghanistan and if US President Barack Obama’s political fortunes did not depend on success in Af-Pak, there would be no reason for India to engage in pointless talks with Pakistan. But the presence of US troops in Afghanistan, and covertly in Pakistan, is an opportunity for India, as Washington faces the unpalatable reality of having to confront the military-jihadi complex. Of course, there is a chance that the Obama administration will chicken out. Even so, it is in India’s interests to deprive Pakistan and the United States of the fig leaves they might want to cover their own escapes. Pakistan cannot blame tensions with India for not fighting the taliban, and the United States cannot use the same excuse in case it fails to compel the Pakistani military establishment to deliver.
So let the foreign secretaries talk. Let them make a list of all issues they want to talk about. And let them then talk about those issues. Just as talks won’t stop terrorism, they need not stop whatever measures India is taking to counter the terrorism.
Honesty demands the risks be stated upfront. One risk is that the United States will lose its nerve, and that New Delhi will fail to compel Washington to act against the military-jihadi complex.
But the bigger risk is that these talks might place the Indian government on a slippery slope of making permanent concessions in return for temporary ones. The desire for a deal, and the place in history that might come with one, will tempt Indian decisionmakers to err on the side of wishfulness. The best way to manage this risk is for the BJP and other parties to remain alert and remain opposed to any concessions, not talks.
The Pakistanis might complain that this is a dialogue of the deaf, and that India is intransigent and that they will not be able to halt terrorism unless India yields to their demands. Let them.