Pakistan on Saturday night called off the first-ever NSA-level talks, with its Foreign Office saying that the proposed talks between the NSAs of the two countries would not serve any purpose, if held as per the two conditions laid down by the Indian External Affairs Minister (EAM) Sushma Swaraj. What became a red rag for New Delhi was the invitation by the Pakistan High Commission to Hurriyat leaders to meet Sartaj Aziz ahead of the talks, which had been agreed upon in Ufa in Russia in July during the meeting between the two prime ministers. India responded stating that it had not set any preconditions and that Pakistan’s decision is unfortunate.
An observer of Indo-Pak relations would have notice the Pakistani reluctance to move ahead with the agreed series of talks between the representatives of the two countries, almost immediately, post-Ufa. It began with the furore in Pakistan over the missing ‘K-word’ from the Ufa joint declaration and the subsequent retraction of the commitment to provide the voice samples of 26/11 accused Lakhvi. While some analysts were quick to junk the Ufa joint declaration as rhetoric, the Indian establishment insisted on going ahead with the NSA-level talks.
The next provocation and attempt to derail the talks was the intensification of the cease-fire violations along the Line of Control/International Border, however, the Indian stand on the talks remained unchanged. Then came the twin terror strikes in Gurdaspur and Udhampur – which too failed in nudging India to call off the talks and its stand was that it did not want Pakistan to ‘wriggle’ out of the talks which were to focus on terrorism. Sense one got was that India was firm on holding Pakistan’s feet to the fire with respect to the commitments it had made on the sidelines of an multilateral SCO meet and no provocation was enough to dent India’s resolve in doing so.
Then Pakistan played the Hurriyat card, not with the conviction in its potency to kill the talks but possibly since it was the only one left in its portfolio. Lo and behold, the talks unravelled and were ultimately cancelled. Two issues strike you immediately – first is the pecking order of India’s sensitivity to provocations: LoC violations and cross-border terror attacks seems to have bounced off while the invitation to the Hurriyat by the Pakistani High Commissioner in New Delhi drew blood. This from a policy perspective does not sit quite well. Of course some would say that it was not the trigger but just the last straw on the Indian camel’s back.
Two, India by its reaction to the Hurriyat card lost out on an important opportunity- not to drive a rift between the two Sharifs (Pakistani political and military establishments led by the two Sharifs – Nawaz and Raheel) as some analysts felt – but to render ineffective the tool of LoC violations, which the Pakistan military has been using to temper and to an extent manage India-Pakistan bilateral interactions. India, by holding its composure on the issue over the past few weeks, was well on a path to bracket LoC violations as an operational and tactical issue rather than a strategic tool in the context of the relations between the two countries. This appeared timed perfectly with the perception of some analysts that international threshold to violence globally (including for the sub-continent) has been increasing.
Equally perplexing were Pakistan’s efforts to conflate the eight point ‘Composite Dialogue’ with the ‘Resumed Dialogue’ that was to follow the talks at Ufa. Despite the fact that most experts inferred Pakistan can easily raise the Kashmir issue during the talks on terrorism, Pakistan went on to conclude that “If only purpose of NSA-level talks is to discuss terrorism, then instead of improving prospects for peace it will only intensify the blame game and further vitiate the atmosphere.” Also that it was not reasonable for India to decide unilaterally that other issues will be discussed after terrorism has been discussed and eliminated.
India’s former foreign secretary Shyam Saran appeared to suggest in an interview to a TV channel that geopolitical developments in the region post-Ufa (including the PM’s visit to UAE) had possibly led both countries to conclude that time was not right for the ‘resumed dialogue’. The Pakistani NSA in his press conference appeared comfortable with the thought of having the first bilateral exchange post-Ufa in New York rather than in New Delhi or Islamabad.
At the end of the day what this “ball-is-in-your-court” diplomacy achieve? One, it just conferred the status of ‘deal-breakers’ on a nondescript inconsequential bunch of men, the Hurriyat. Two, it shot the third bolt, after cross-border terrorism and LoC violations, on the door leading to peace talks with Pakistan. Three, in the back and forth exchanges of last few days we have managed to pin the onus of cancellation of talks on Pakistan – squaring off with our own actions of last August. Four, just when it appeared Indian diplomacy was headed for the big league, we have confirmed our hyphenation with the regional bad egg, Pakistan. Five, after the MEA’s press conference on August 22 evening, one cannot help but notice that our EAM has got her mojo back, putting behind her the uncomfortable political issues she has been facing at home.
Lastly, as two cricket loving nations, the entire episode of the cancellation of the NSA-level talks leaves you with a feeling in your gut, quite similar to the one that you get, when your favourite batsman holes out at the boundary, a few runs short of his century.