| Talk about homework
Now that the Americans have twisted the arm of the Vajpayee government to move it from confrontation to conciliation, the time has come to consider how best to structure this new initiative at permanent peace between India and Pakistan. The first preliminary is to hold the Pakistan government to the pledge given by its foreign minister, Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri, in his interview to BBCHindi.com that talks between India and Pakistan will be strictly bilateral. He resiled from this assurance within three weeks in his address to the Heritage Foundation, Washington, DC. Perhaps a looming American presence, like a malevolent cloud-hang, can hardly be avoided in these days of intrusive diplomacy, but we have the Shimla agreement to cling to in order to make the talks as bilateral as possible.
The next preliminary to be ensured is that the government of India is held to the pledge made by the external affairs minister, Yashwant Sinha, that there will be none of the meretricious drama which wrecked the Lahore and Agra summits. There is no place as yet for summits and none should be held until the sherpas have done their work. For durable agreements to be concluded, the ground must be as thoroughly prepared as it was before Rajiv Gandhi’s 1988 visit to China.
That said, we need to begin with talks about talks. Mistakes of the past must be avoided. The most successful talks about talks ever held between India and Pakistan were when the then foreign secretary, Salman Haider, visited Islamabad and Murree in June 1997. What we need to learn from that visit is not so much to revive its good points as to avoid it mistakes. The basic mistake with the Haider model was that it segmented the dialogue. Different working groups were set up for different dimensions of the dialogue, with a special position being given to subjects remitted to the two foreign secretaries.
This is what basically wrecked the new deal which prime ministers Inder Kumar Gujral and Nawaz Sharif were attempting to put together. For it became a matter of prestige as to which subject would be elevated to the foreign secretary level and which retained at the lowly level of working groups. Although there was some forward movement towards resolving this procedural (and wholly cosmetic) dispute when the two foreign secretaries met in September in New Delhi, the momentum was gone and the fall of the Gujral government a few months later put paid to what little progress had been recorded.
However, even before Gujral became history, the second flaw of segmentation had become apparent. In a segmented dialogue, each group is headed by a separate set of interlocutors. This means all trade-offs are to be within sectors. Inter-sectoral trade-offs are rendered beyond the scope of the dialogue. In consequence, there is little scope for what one side loses on the swings, say on visas, being compensated by what it gains on the roundabouts, say trade. Salman Haider would reply that such inter-sectoral trade-offs were provided for at the review meetings which were to be held at foreign secretary level. The problem is that given the bureaucratization of both governments, a defence secretary is hardly going to let a foreign secretary yield ground on a defence matter on which the defence secretary has won laurels for standing firm. The segmentation of the dialogue thus undermines the integrity of the dialogue.
Therefore, talks about talks should lead to agreement on a consolidated list of points on which an integral dialogue will be embarked upon by a single interlocutor on each side. Of course, the advisers to the interlocutors will change with the subject under discussion, but if the principal interlocutor remains the same, both the integrity of the dialogue and, therefore, the possibility of inter-sectoral trade-offs will be ensured.
For the principal interlocutors to bear such a heavy responsibility, it is essential that they be drawn not from the bureaucratic but from the political class. Clearly, the interlocutors would have to be diplomatically savvy and endowed with effective political clout. The level might be somewhat below the external affairs minister level but well above the back-bench grade. Having the interlocutor report to the foreign office minister would also have the merit of “deniability”: going back on an offer, as distinct from a commitment, on the ground that it will not “sell” with the political authority or public opinion, as the case may be. At the same time, the interlocutor must have access to the cabinet so that inter-departmental rivalries are reconciled at ministerial level under the overall aegis of the prime minister.
Third, timing. The example to bear in mind is the United States of America-North Vietnam talks at the Hotel Majestic in Paris every Thursday, whatever the ground situation during the course of a bitterly contested war. The dialogue went on, bombing or no. A symbiotic relationship was set up between the progress of the dialogue and the military reality. In contrast, no India-Pakistan dialogue has ever been sustained. At the least gust of a hostile wind, the talks have broken down. Indeed, both sides at different times have even blown the gust to terminate the dialogue. The talks about talks must, therefore, focus on how to so structure the dialogue as to insulate it, to the extent possible, from the inevitable ups and downs in the bilateral relationship. This can be secured only through a bilateral commitment to a calendar of negotiations which remains ineluctably in place whatever the relationship at any given point in time between the two parties to the dialogue. Whatever the periodicity agreed upon — once a week, once a fortnight, whatever — there should be a commitment from which there will be no resiling: a specific date within a specific periodicity when they will meet, come rain, hail or high water.
Fourth, venue. The Hotel Majestic was chosen because Paris was a neutral venue in a third country. As the Shimla agreement is essentially about bilateralism, a third-country venue must be ruled out. That, however, renders the dialogue vulnerable to the standard diplomatic technique of declaring that it is not “convenient” to receive the visiting side when the dialogue oscillates between the two capitals. To avoid either side holding the option of disrupting the dialogue by deliberately not finding a mutually “convenient” date, the example of Panmunjom springs to mind. For the last fifty years, delegations from North and South Korea have been monitoring their armistice across a table laid exactly over the cease-fire line, so that no North Korean has to leave North Korea to attend the talks, even as no South Korean leaves his country to meet his North Korean counterpart. As with the two Koreas, India and Pakistan are geographical neighbours. They could meet at the Wagah-Attari border, Wagah being but half-an-hour’s drive from Lahore (connected to Islamabad by air) and Attari being no further from Amritsar (connected to Delhi by air).
Finally, the agenda. It must be both structured and open-ended — structured to permit rational discussion, open-ended in order that priorities are not ridden over rough-shod by either side. The practice of a “zero hour”, borrowed from our uniquely subcontinental parliamentary practice — raising the issue of the hour, with or without giving prior notice — would also be crucial to allowing the substantive dialogue to move forward while keeping public opinion sated that current concerns are not being ignored or brushed aside while the dialogue focusses on core issues of a more enduring nature.
I do not know to where such a dialogue will lead or for how long it will need to be sustained. If I did, I would suggest the solution immediately, not wait for it to be reached by patient, prolonged negotiation. That is why structuring the dialogue is the key to bringing it to a fruitful conclusion. This will take years rather than days. To prepare for such a long haul, talks about talks are the essential preliminary. For if the structuring of the dialogue is botched, it will not be long before India and Pakistan are back to snarling at each other.