By Amit Dasgupta*
The recent announcement that India and Pakistan would resume substantive engagement on the front of peace dialogue came as a welcome surprise, especially because it was not accompanied by the baggage of fanfare, which has become the hallmark of the ritualistic ‘talk about talks’. The announcement was done quietly and outside the glare of both the media and the public.
The two Foreign Secretaries would meet in January to chalk out a calendar of meetings. Prime Ministers of both the countries are aware that if the talks break down, the damage, in public perception, would be minimal, as India-Pakistan talks are known to regularly fail. In such an eventuality, the official spokespersons would take recourse to the usual blame game.
At the same time, both Prime Ministers are also acutely aware that should the negotiations conclude successfully, they would be guaranteed a place in history. In the eyes of the international community and in their respective domestic constituencies, it would be seen as an extraordinary achievement that could transform the region.
For the beleaguered Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif this would be a feather in his cap at a deeply troubling time in Pakistan. For the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, this would reflect statesmanship of exceptional calibre. Both, consequently, face a win-win situation. Given that there is more to win than to lose, a unique opportunity exists to approach the talks with an open mind like never before.
However, for the negotiations to succeed this time around, it is the negotiating strategies that need to be reimagined. First, negotiations assume a conflict. How negotiations are approached determines the positions we take. If we approach negotiations with bad faith, the negotiations would fail even before they are begun. On the other hand, if talks are entered into in good faith, irrespective of the pressures that might have brought the negotiators to the table, the negotiations would assume an entirely different complexion.
Second, the proposed resumption of substantive talks needs to be done behind closed doors and outside the media glare. There are many, on both sides of the border, who oppose this normalizing of bilateral relations. They have fixed mindsets and would clearly aim to disrupt the talks and vitiate the atmosphere. This is the time for quiet diplomacy.
Third, it is reasonable to assume that several rounds of negotiations would take place and could involve multiple players from both sides, including secret emissaries and Track 2 efforts. There are, furthermore, many in both countries, who enjoy considerable respect and leverage within their country and across the border. Networking and hierarchy are part of the South Asian DNA.
It is important, therefore, to reach out to everyone who can contribute to the dialogue process in a positive manner and to co-opt them into the process, while ensuring that the command and control lies unambiguously with the Prime Minister (at least, in the case of India).
The importance of back channel communications cannot be over-emphasized. It bears recalling that even when the British army was fighting the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the MI5 had opened covert communications with the former. This was initially done to get advance information on possible terror strikes so as to mount counter-insurgency operations. Over time, MI5 managed to develop strong communication channels within the IRA rank and file, including with Martin McGuinness, who was the IRA Chief of Staff. This came in handy when talks were formally initiated by the government with the IRA.
Fourth, while both sides are clear in terms of the irritants in the relationship, sequencing the issues would be important. A clutter of issues plagues both nations, including Kashmir, terrorism, water sharing, Afghanistan, safe havens, etc. For the negotiators, the most important decision would not be which issues are on the table, but the sequence in which issues are taken up.
Negotiations are a step-by-step process. You do not order every item on the menu while ordering your meal. The attitude with which one approaches the negotiations would, therefore, determine the sequencing. Taking up the most contentious issue first would run the risk of the talks breaking down. The first step needs to be the establishment of rapport and the gradual erosion of the trust deficit. There needs to be, in other words, visible demonstration of good faith.
At the very outset, therefore, atmospherics need to be put in place by first establishing goodwill and confidence. Considerable mistrust and antagonism would, understandably, hang like thick smog over the negotiating table. As Professor Alison Brooks, who teaches negotiation at Harvard Business School, observes, ‘In negotiations that are less transactional and involve parties in long-term relationships, understanding the role of emotions is even more important than it is in transactional deal making.’
South Asians tend to be emotionally high-strung and this would, most certainly, be on display. The atmosphere would be highly charged and it would appear as if something excessively consuming is in progress. Both sides need to recognize that the ability to assuage emotions without surrendering core interests is what would enable the negotiations to move forward. While voices would be raised and delegation members might even dramatically storm out, the leaders of the two delegations need to be acutely sensitive in ensuring that emotions do not go out of control.
This would need to be a deal-making negotiation. Consequently, direct confrontation cannot be the preferred strategy as it would have damaging consequences and could even result in the talks breaking down. How one communicates lies at the heart of communication because negotiation is essentially interpersonal.
Fifth, the great risk associated with bilateral negotiations relate to stability, both political and economic. The Indian delegation is conscious of the fact that Pakistan faces deep political instability and consequent economic insecurity. There would be temptation on the part of the Indian delegation to hasten the pace of negotiations and wrap-up as much as possible for fear that a change in government would require starting de novo. This would be ill-advised, since a new government in Islamabad could very well renege on commitments made by its predecessor. Seasoned negotiators are patience and vigilant.
Sixth, no one would normally participate in a negotiation with expectations of failure. Neither side expects a zero-sum game outcome or even a win-win because win-win, in a very definitional sense, is a theoretical and unrealistic proposition. Balancing success where both sides have an equal take-away is desirable but rarely achievable. A successful negotiation is one where neither side feels it has lost face or that the deal is unfair. Sustainable outcomes of deal-making negotiations are predicated on the deal being perceived as honourable by both parties.
What both sides would confront is what the price-line is. What, in other words, is the price they would be required to pay in comparison with what they are willing to pay? Price is a matter of comfort zone. Every negotiator recognizes that there is a Lakshman rekha, an Indian metaphor meaning a red line that cannot be crossed. Any pushing beyond that point is counterproductive. Negotiators often come with preconceived notions and end objectives.
They are keen to concede as little as possible, while maximizing their own gains. India-Pakistan talks, however, assume an entirely different complexion. The two Prime Ministers have agreed to enter into dialogue to ascertain whether seven decades of acrimony that has seen considerable grief on both sides could be transcended for the betterment of over 1.5 billion people. This means that both sides would need to reimagine their strategic objectives and negotiating mandates.
Concessions would, most certainly, need to be made by both sides, if the talks are to be meaningful and the negotiated peace sustainable. It is not inconceivable that some of these concessions would be seen as giving more than getting. However, if the end objective is lasting peace and a new chapter in bilateral relations, the Lakshman rekha might even need to be redrawn. Both sides need to be open to this.
Finally, negotiations are only part of the process. What has been negotiated needs to be acceptable to and supported by domestic constituencies. This is not easy and both governments are cognizant of this. Selling peace is as complex an assignment as making peace is.
Everything rests on political will, especially in the face of the many naysayers in both the countries. As Jagat Mehta, a former Indian Foreign Secretary, so eloquently reminded us, ‘We know the past. Do we need to live in it?’ That should possibly be the principle negotiating brief.
*Amit Dasgupta is a former Indian diplomat who currently heads the Mumbai campus of the SP Jain School of Global Management. He can be reached at: [email protected]