Etiquette — as most foreign service officers know — is crucial to the art of diplomacy. Its breach, avoidable at all times, is allowed only if there is a special message to be conveyed. It is always bad manners to chat up dissidents when the idea is to humour the country they are battling against, and few nations fail to get the message when the opposite happens. Too much Indian interaction with the Dalai Lama, for example, would automatically be construed as an affront to China. Unfortunately, India has created a confusion of sorts each time it has objected to Kashmiri separatists being entertained by Pakistani politicians or diplomats, and then politely looked the other way when such a thing happened (and it has happened too many times). Pakistan, naturally, claims to be shocked at the suddenness of India’s response to what it sees as a ‘routine’ tête-à-tête with the Kashmiri separatists. But unlike before, the Indian government appears to be neither constrained by precedents nor by the renewed bonhomie with Pakistan. It has cancelled the foreign-secretary-level talks scheduled for later this month and is hoping that its response will be interpreted exactly the way it wants: every unwelcome action on Pakistan’s part will invite an equal and opposite reaction from India. The hint of steel in India’s resolve was perhaps made apparent when the prime minister, Narendra Modi, recently came down heavily on Pakistan for continuing a proxy war of terrorism against India. The cancellation of the talks may be further proof of that resolve.
The tricky question is where that leads, or leaves, the two countries. There is no doubt that Pakistan has ruffled feathers by talking to the separatists. Its message to India on the eve of almost every talk since 26/11 is that it will not allow the “core” issue of Kashmir to be drowned by “deliverables” such as trade. India seems as desperate to concentrate entirely on the “do-ables” while holding Pakistan’s feet to the fire for signs of renewed aggression, whether by State or non-State actors. The conflict of interests — and these are dictated by hawks on both sides — makes it impossible to take the dialogue forward. It is important to send strong messages, but the government should also know that it will need to keep talking to Pakistan if it is serious about safeguarding India’s interests in a region awaiting momentous changes.