Talk Walks, Finally

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As Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue emerges from the ruins of Composite Dialogue between Delhi and Islamabad, Masood Hussain analyses the surprising resumption of engagement and costs, the two countries are apparently aimed to avoid

Sushma Swaraj greeting Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharief in Islamabad.

Sushma Swaraj greeting Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharief in Islamabad.

The unscheduled ‘pull aside’ meeting between Premiers’ Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif in Paris on November 30, more than four months after their formal meeting in Ufa on July 11, has finally warmed up India and Pakistan to come out of the reticence. India’s External Affairs Minister Sushima Swaraj visited Pakistan for two days and broke the ice. Now a Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue (CBD) will replace the Composite Dialogue (CD) process as it envisages more issues between the two countries.

Though a structured CD was talked about since Inder Gujral days, it actually took off with the Atal Behari Vajpayee’s historic Islamabad visit in January 2004. With various hits and misses in between, the process continued till the Mumbai attacks in November 2008, brought it to a complete halt. By then five phases of talks had taken place. Year 2011 witnessed an attempt to revive the moribund process but the LoC tensions in 2012 consumed it completely.

Modi’s invitation to SAARC counterparts for his oath-taking in May 2014 proved a false start. In July 2014, foreign secretary level talks were cancelled as Islamabad invited Hurriyat leaders to Delhi for pre-talks-meeting. A month later, the same reasons led to cancellation of NSA-level talks.

Situation shifts in later 2015. With Modi surprising Sharif by reaching minutes ahead of schedule for the Ufa meeting and latter pulling him aside on a sofa in Paris for the fully-televised ‘live’ meeting without an audio, the two leaders have had various telephone interactions in between. On December 6, “biggies” in media from India and Pakistan were busy in “deliberations” in Bangkok. They were in Thai capital for many days but had not even the whiff of India and Pakistan meeting. This meeting announced the Swaraj visit to Islamabad to attend the ‘Heart of Asia’ conference focusing on Afghanistan. Even Omar Abdullah, former J&K Chief Minister, and the erstwhile poster boy of Vajpayee’s MEA, could not hide his shock. “If Pakistan was “made to talk terror” was India also “made to talk Kashmir” since J&K had found no mention in Ufa???,” Omar tweeted.

Diplomatic pressures have already been there. In fact the CD process was literally dictated by the Americans. Western disturbances in India’s diplomacy apart, there were various compelling issues that contributed to the revival of the process.

Firstly, there has been a consistent instance from Kabul that in order to help the region stabilize, Delhi will have to stop throwing spanners in whatever good happens for Afghanistan, the ‘strategic depth’ of Islamabad. In fact, in anticipation of the Sushma visit, Afghanistan foreign minister and NSA were campaigning in Delhi to ensure the ‘Heart of Asia’ conference is a success and does not meet the fate of Conference of Speakers and Presiding Officers of the Commonwealth (CSPOC). Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) cancelled the weeklong September 2015 conclave after Islamabad refused to extend the invitation to J&K Speaker.

Secondly, Islamabad is hosting the next (19th) SAARC summit later 2016. Modi, from day one has made serious efforts to emerge  as the ‘big brother’ as he invited entire SAARC heads on his swearing in ceremony. Regardless of the ‘cold war’ that SAARC members are engaged on within, mostly with Delhi, for one of the other reason, Modi’s absence from the summit would dent that ‘big brother’ image. It would also compromise the weight that Delhi’s stake over a permanent seat in UNSC.

Thirdly, no major Indian state is slated to go for elections in 2017. Kashmir and Pakistan have remained an electoral staple for Sangh Parivaar. It reached its zenith last time in Bihar when Amit Shah, the BJP President insisted that a BJP loss would lead to bursting of crackers in Pakistan. The hawkish stand on Kashmir that Modi-led BJP government exhibited in cancellation of two earlier official level meetings had some bearing on the party’s poll strategy. The only state election for 2016 is Assam. Dispur, however, loves East Pakistan (Bangaldesh) in elections and not the (West) Pakistan. The lack of any electoral exercise gives BJP a lot of room to do something very serious on diplomatic front, especially with its neighbours, especially Pakistan. It, however, remains to be seen if Delhi can afford its continuation in 2017 when UP is expected to go to polls.

Fourthly, Modi’s insistence in his Srinagar speech that ‘he does not require anybody’s advice on Kashmir’ has been more of his 56-inch rhetoric. The fact is that his ally Mufti’s consistent insistence that a peaceful J&K has its fountainhead in Islamabad has been taken seriously. In his detailed October meeting and later publicly in Srinagar, Mufti has maintained that engaging Islamabad is a prerequisite for ensuring a peaceful J&K with emphasis on development. This, informed sources believe, has been taken very seriously by Delhi.

Fifthly, the increasing frequency of comparisons being drawn between the NDA-I and NDA-II has led Modi persona being dwarfed by the Vajpayee. The increasing tensions in the Parivaar with the Elders actually coming out in open on various occasions has triggered a pressure against bidding adieu to the Vajpayee doctrine. Modi’s insistence on humanity, democracy and Kashmiriyat was just an indicator of reclaiming the Vajpayee’s enigmatic Kashmir trilogy. For reviving it literally, Sushma Swaraj is an ideal face. A strong Vajapayee supporter, she is considered a rebel in Modi camp.

Sixthly, a cold war with Islamabad could cost Delhi hugely in terms of delay in implementation of various symbiotic projects that India is so keen to happen. India is so keen to get a land route access to Afghan produce. It is keen to enter into the Afghanistan-Pakistan Trade and Transit Agreement that would enable it to receive Afghan produce at its border in Attari. Islamabad’s continued reluctance in giving Delhi this luxury had led India to fast forward Iran’s Chabahar port.

Mufti-and-Modi“The ‘Heart’ of Asia cannot function if arteries are clogged,” Swaraj told the Conference. “Nothing can benefit Afghanistan more immediately than full and direct overland access to India’s markets.” If it happens, Delhi will get an access to Central Asia.

Modi and Sharif interestingly are slated to meet again on Sunday (December 13) in Ashgabat (Turkmenistan) to attend the groundbreaking ceremony event of US $10-billion pipeline – TAPI that will bring gas to the three countries. This will perhaps be the first major SAARC project connecting at least three of its members. Almost 85 percent of the project is financed by Turkmenistan and balance would be shared by the three end-user countries. Pakistan alone intends importing 1.3 billion cubic feet of gas per day (bcfd). Imagine, how much India would require and intend to eventually import?

CBD will take some time to become clear on the sketch. Foreign ministries from both sides of the Redcliff divide insisted that the ‘past is not disowned’ and in fact, more is being added to the CD subset. Swaraj told reporters that the finance secretaries will meet and work on “scheduling and modalities” of the process.

The brief joint statement has actually listed the areas on which talks will take place. While “Jammu & Kashmir” is one item that Kashmir will be mostly interested in, there are many other issues which are linked to J&K. ‘Peace and Security’ is dominantly a Kashmir-linked area, CBMs are expected to be mostly about J&K in addition to, if at all they decide’ flying more than one Thursday aircraft between Lahore and Delhi! Siachen is entirely a Kashmir subject on which agreements were drafted twice but left unsigned. Interestingly, PDP, BJP’s Kashmir ally, has announced the party stands for converting the world’s coldest frontier into a peace park. On religious tourism, counter-terrorism, people-to-people exchange and to a small extent (linking to certain areas in Jammu) to narcotics control, J&K will be around. But what is going to raise lot of heat and dust is the Tulbul Navigation Lock that Pakistan loves to say Wullar Barrage. The fact of the matter is that J&K government has substantially invested in revival of package by reportedly changing its location. Off late, it has been trying desperately to skip a Pakistan Indus Commission visit because the low levels in Wullar has started showing the extent of work that has already been completed.

Modi’s Achay Din have not come in last 18 months. As the taxpayer is paying the Swachh Bharat cess to fund his clean India mission, policymakers are in the process of drafting another tax – the skill development cess. In such a situation, reviving its moribund engagement with Pakistan may help Modi to reconnect with the middle class that is fast deserting him. In resumption of talks, Mufti sees a “victory for J&K” and hopes the “new phase of reconciliation” succeeds. But the real question is: how will India and Pakistan engage the Kashmir separatists, militias not excluded, who could have the last laugh on the process if they are elbowed out of the peace-mongering efforts.

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