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“The resumption of dialogue is a good sign”

Siddharth Varadarajan on Pakistan-India relations

“The resumption of dialogue is a good sign”

Siddharth Varadarajan is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, Shiv Nadar University, New Delhi, and is a former Editor of The Hindu. He has also taught at New York University and served as a Visiting Professor at the Graduate School of Journalism, the University of California-Berkeley. He is a member of the Indian Council of World Affairs, the editorial board of India Quarterly: A Journal of International Affairs and the Executive Council of the Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies.

He was in Islamabad last week on the invitation of Jinnah Institute as part of its Distinguished Speaker Series. The News on Sunday talked to him mostly on Pakistan-India relations. Excerpts of the interview follow:

The News on Sunday: What are your thoughts on the Indian Foreign Secretary’s recent visit to Islamabad?

Siddharth Varadarajan: I think the visit of Foreign Secretary S.Jaishankar to Islamabad is significant mainly because it presents an opportunity for India and Pakistan to pick up the threads of a dialogue process that was aborted when the Indian Government decided to call off the foreign secretary level meeting  in last August.

Since then, the question has arisen of how the two sides can find a way to resume their dialogue.

The decision to re-engage with Pakistan, even if initially on the issue of what can we do at SAARC, has given a good opportunity to the Modi Government to see how the bilateral issue can also be taken forward.

In the final analysis, what we need is a higher degree of trust and confidence between the two sides for any dialogue to be durable and fruitful. The interactionright now is really in the preliminary stages. It is a good sign but I think a lot needs to happen for both India and Pakistan before we can say that the dialogue process has been resumed and is likely to produce any tangible results.

TNS: Why is the India-Pakistan relationship so accident-prone? Is there a problem of egos on both sides? Why do we need ‘a good opportunity’ every time to re-engage?

SV: The reason why the dialogue hasn’t succeeded in the last 20 years is because there has been a mismatch between the political strength and capabilities of the two governments. Let’s go back to 1998 when India and Pakistan had both tested nuclear weapons. Nawaz Sharif and AtalBihari Vajpayee were the prime ministers and despite the nuclear tests, when everybody had assumed that the relationship had nosedived, there was a proposal for  a‘bus-yatra’ and Vajpayee came to Minar-e-Pakistan, Lahore and there was genuine belief in India that India and Pakistan perhaps have turned a corner at that time.

The argument was that may be it required right-wing governments on both sides to deal with the difficult issues of terror and Kashmir, and Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif were both right wing. But then Kargil happened because Nawaz wasn’t fully in control, and again the dialogue process derailed.

The statement of Pakistani defence minister within twenty four hours of what should be a path-breaking visit I think is not helpful.

It took from 1998 till 2001 August when an attempt was made once again — withthe Agra process. Musharraf came to Delhi and but the talks were not successful and then you had the attack on India’s parliament. There was a sharp downward turn in the relationship and there was a military standoff on the border. Later,at theSAARC summit in 2004 when Vajpayee was in Islamabad and there was an agreement that Pakistan would undertake not to allow its territory by forces inimical to India,the dialogue process started again. And you had this whole composite dialogue framework which survived the change of government in India.

Vajpayee lost the elections in 2004 and Manmohan Singh became prime minister. Now why did Manmohan Singh and Musharraf, who saw eye to eye on many issues and had a common approach to resolution of the Kashmir issue, the so-called soft borders approach, not succeed? To my mind for the same reason that Kargil interrupted the Lahore process in 1998– that AtalBihari Vajpayee was politically strong in the domestic context to do whatever he wanted but Nawaz Sharif was not.

Well from 2004 onwards, despite Manmohan and Musharraf agreeing on the basic framework when they had a very successful backchannel dialogue,the fact is that Musharraf enjoyed more authority within Pakistan than Manmohan did within India. Manmohan was politically weak even in his own party. He faceda strong opposition. Musharraf enjoyed unparalleled authority buthe got into trouble with the judiciary and from 2007 onwards hiscapacity to deliver was itself under question.

With the PPP forming the government, again there were some talk of the dialogue process moving forward and then we saw the Mumbai attack. Again,neitherthe governments of Zardari or Manmohan was strong enough to overcome all the domestic barriers to dialogue. So that process also did not go very far.

Now fast forward to 2014, Nawaz Sharif has been in power for a year and a half and Modi gets elected as the most powerful prime minister India has seen in 25 years. It seems as if finally India has a government that is able to deliver, but there is still uncertainty about Nawaz Sharif’s authority.

Nawaz is battling multiple problems along with the internal war against extremism. I would say that the relationship between the political and military establishment has still not been settled. There are question marks in India about Nawaz Sharif’s ability to deliver on certain things, trade being one example. At the same time, it

seems as if the Pakistani military, given its problems on Western side, is not in favour of greater tension with India. Of course, the violation of the ceasefire is something which worries us in India but perhaps now is a good time for the two sides to move ahead.

TNS: Pakistani defence minister KhawajaAsif said in an interview that India had been disturbing the border peace and diverting Pakistan’s attention from the fight against militancy. Pakistan has always wanted to have Kashmir issue as the focal point of debate. Do you think it is possible to move ahead in such a situation?

SV: On the Indian side, there is no political difficulty in having a dialogue on all issues including Kashmir, including Siachen. That was what the composite dialogue was all about. One can argue whether that formula was useful or not. I think India and Pakistan have accomplished more on the back channel in the meetings between Musharraf’s special envoy and Manmohan’s special envoy. In the three yearsthatthose two gentlemen interacted, they accomplished more in bridging differences and movingtowards ajoint formula than the foreign secretaries of the two governments have done in 20 years of meetings.

So I think we do need to look at how we can impart dynamism in the process by involving, say when it comes to Kashmir and terrorism, politically-empowered negotiators rather than bureaucrats. But the fact is that today we are not in that position. The two sides are not even ready to have dialogue on any topic and unless that situation changes, it’s very hard to think of how we can move ahead.

The statement of the Pakistani defence minister, that too within 24 hours of what should have been a path-breaking visit, I think is not helpful. What conceivable interest could India have in weakening the Pakistani fight against terrorism? One reads from time to time very absurd claims in the Pakistani press that terrorist outfits like the TTP have Indian support. This is such anatrocious claim because we know and Pakistan knows that the TTP is as much an enemy of India as it is of Pakistan. It has links with anti-India jihadi groups like LeT and JeM.

So, it would be absurd for India to provide any assistance whatsoever to an outfit like the TTP and I think the more Pakistan succeeds in its war against TTP, the better it is for India. So I don’t think  this argument of the defence minister has any validity.

TNS: But there is a strong conviction in Pakistan that India is supporting the insurgency in Balochistan and has always wanted to hurt Pakistan’s interest in Afghanistan. The former Sri Lankan president in a recent interview also blamed India for supporting the insurgency in Pakistan. How do you react to these allegations?

SV: First of all, the statement of former president Rajapaksa is quite laughable. He has lost the election and feels bitter about his defeat. Obviously, he would like to blame a foreign hand whereas his defeat is the product of his own misrule and circumstances. When it comes to Pakistan, we have heard in the past allegations of Indian support to Baloch insurgency groups. We have heard of allegations that India uses its diplomatic presence in Afghanistan to undermine Pakistan. What we have not seen so far is any concrete detail or evidence.

Now, in the case of Pakistani support to the anti-India terrorist groups, we can point to the presence of somebody like Hafiz Saeed who makes anti-India statements and then receives the support of Punjab Government. We can point to a recent article in BBC about the luxurious conditions under which Zaki-ur-RehmanLakhvi is living in Jail. So we are able point to those things and say you need to deal with these guys.

Pakistan needs to come with evidence that the international community will find credible rather than make allegtions. India wants a stable, united and peaceful Afghanistan. I don’t think that anybody in India seriously subscribes to the theory that India can get together with Afghanistan to undermine Pakistan.

TNS: It is being said that pressure from the United States forced Modi to resume the dialogue process with Pakistan.

SV: There is no doubt that the US at different levels would have been putting pressure on both India and Pakistan to resume the dialogue process. Having said that, I think today India and the US have a much better understanding of each other’s policies vis-a vis Pakistan than they had in the past.

You would have noticed that when Obama came to India, Pakistan didn’t really figure in the joint statement and the reason for that is that even though the US may have reservations about India’s approach towards Pakistan — just as we have reservations about the US approach to Pakistan — we both recognise the constraints and limitations of each other. So we recognise what America’s options are given America’s interests. And I think Washington also recognises what India’s options and limitations are.

So, I would not say that what Modi has done is a product of American pressure. It is a product of an internal recognition that the calling off of talks last August was not something that was in the long-term interest of India. Let’s not forget that Modi himself was the person who pushed for inviting Nawaz Sharif for his oath-taking ceremony.

I think the reason why Modi wants to talk is because he recognises that it is in India’s interest to have good relations with its neighbours, it is in the interest of the people of Jammu and Kashmir and in the interest of people of Pakistan. It is my belief that PM Nawaz Sharif who has a good understanding of economic issues also understands the importance of Pakistan-India relations.

TNS: But with this aggressive policy of Modi government on the LoC, do you think things can move forward?

SV: During the election campaign, Modi used to criticise Manmohan for having a weak response to Pakistani violations on the LoC and border. Your readers would remember the incident in January 2013 when an Indian soldier was beheaded and SushmaSwaraj, then leader of the opposition in the  LokSabha and now the Foreign Minister of India, had told the Indian Government that “if they cut one head we should cut ten heads”. So this kind of irresponsible rhetoric was indulged in by the BJP during the period when it was in opposition. I am glad to note that even though the Indian response to violations of the LoC has been more intense than before, they have not followed this advice of SushmaSwaraj.

Yes, India has been responding to what itperceives as Pakistani violationsand sometime this response also is disproportionate. But the Indian Army and Security Forces feel that is only way to deter these kinds of violationson the LOC. My view as an analyst is that if there is one good thing that has come out of India Pakistan talksin the last decade and half, it is the ceasefire which had made theLoC a much more peaceful placeI think it is very important that that both sides get into contact with each other each time there is a violation so that the incident could be quickly sorted out. And the kind of escalation we saw in the last six months where incidents drag onfor weeks is very detrimental to the life and security of the people on the border of course but also to the bilateral relationship.

TNS: Talking Kashmir, what do you make out of this new coalition government of Mufti Sayeed in Indian held Kashmir?

SV: It is my belief that now you have a coalition in Jammu and Kashmir between PDP and BJP, there is every prospect of a stable government that represents the electoral aspirations of people in the Kashmir valley as well as in Jammu, which are two important regions of J&K. Any government formed on the basis of support in just one region and not the other would have done  agreat disservice to that state. In many ways, I am glad that these two parties have come to an understanding and formed the government.

Now it’s a fact that the PDP and BJP are very different in their approach towards the problems of Jammu and Kashmir. Mufti sahab has been an ardent advocate of Pakistan India dialogue. I think he embodies the pragmatism of the Kashmiri politician who understands the ground realities, and his statement about how Pakistan in a way helped by not allowing terrorism to disrupt the elections has to be seen in that context. What you canalso interpret from his statement is that in the past the attitude of the Pakistani government was not helpful. So when he saidwhat he did, I think that it should be appreciated as a positive statement.

Mufti sahabhas always voiced the aspirations of the people of Jammu and Kashmir for a political solution to the problems of the state. When Manmohan was engaging with Musharraf, Mufti and his daughter and his party PDP broadly supported that approach. Okay, the territorial status quo between Pakistan and India can’t change. But why can’t the two sides as people not have socio-economic and cultural relations and even politician-to-politician contacts? It is important that people on the Pakistani side get to understand and appreciate who the different Kashmiri political leaders are.

Aoun Sahi

aoun sahi
The author is a staff reporter.

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