JULY 15 is a good time for India and Pakistan to resume dialogue. The South Asian monsoon obliterates all conceits of human agency to one boundary-less blitzkrieg. Yet miracles are not in the pipeline. While there is a late, but useful awareness in New Delhi that talk is indispensable, the threshold for flexibility appears painfully low.
The Indian leadership is brave to want peace. After the Mumbai massacre, in mainstream India, the notion of peace with Pakistan runs counter to the new muscular nationalism that lays down red lines in a strident television culture of consumer-led discourse.
This talking-head phenomenon reflects the voice of a new reactionary middle class that exhorts governments to talk tough and carry a big stick.
They target Pakistan as Indiaâ€™s main security challenge, and compete with each other to trash peace as a non-starter if the process accommodates Islamabadâ€™s priorities. Thoughtful civil society voices that caution moderation are getting sparser as a species, and rare is the Indian pundit who can hold her own to suggest that Pakistan is part of a regional solution to the rising terrorist challenge.
The reality that Pakistan is at war on its western borders, losing soldiers and non-combatants almost daily in terrorist reprisals all over the country is of no interest to this class. Add this media antipathy to the anti-Pakistan pathologies of the security establishment and peace-trackers have a new challenge to tackle.
The good news is that this narrative of belligerence finds little resonance in the great mass of the urban and rural underclass that feeds, washes and services Emporio India or their aspirational lifestyles. This underclass of taxi drivers, shopkeepers, waiters and launderers is invested in a far more benign counter-narrative of authentic yearning for the neighbour that got lost in the fog of war. And most are not Muslim. Shopkeepers lay out discounts, drivers romanticise Pakistani fruit and waiters never stop asking questions about obscure towns they have no connection with.
Yet, it is the state on both sides that will ha\e to act. The fact that both states had to rely on a sideline Saarc meeting on such a substantive issue as resumption of dialogue between two nuclear neighbours is an index of bilateral intellectual poverty. In this diplomatic milieu, the ballast to move from distrust into settlement mode will require more than just a standard-issue agenda.
Productive dialogue seeks intended consequences, not ossified goalposts. Four items can protect the process from attrition. To define objectives, the first set of meetings should set the agenda for what items are laid on the table.
Second, the reactivated process should be used as an opportunity to ensure that dialogue, by whatever name, remains intact, even for eyeballing displeasure. If dialogue remains hostage to external events, which may well be out of state control, then it will become less viable as an instrument of preventing conflict.
Third, dialogue should be nudged back from confidence-building formats into conflict-resolution templates as soon as possible. If outcomes are not measured against reasonable targets, inertia will calcify decisions. Old stalemates on settled items like Siachen redeployments, Wullar barrage, Sir Creek, must be broken to reinvent the dialogue track and to reinvigorate trust.
Finally, because the formal dialogue process has yielded so little in terms of gains, and so much in terms of reversals, a record of non-paper agreements should be archived as memoranda of back-channel agreements. Without these pre-requisites, dialogue will flatline, and a culture of consent will evade us.
Despite Kashmir, two strains dominate the pathology of conflict between India and Pakistan. Terrorism and water-sharing now frame a new discourse for conflict-resolution, very different in nature from the long-standing disputes that vexed the relationship. Water deficits in Pakistan, partially impacted by India, have become the new force multiplier of nationalist dogma.
Much of the narrative is based on widespread ignorance in both countries. Pakistan ignores the fact that over 35 per cent of the water in its system is wasted, and India ignores the misery it causes when crucial spigots run dry because upstream water is stored at sowing season in Pakistan.
India can technically remain on the right side of the Indus Waters Treaty if it builds hydropower dams on the Rivers Chenab and Jhelum, but it is not allowed to use storage and timing to render downstream farmers destitute, nor to divert tributaries as indicated by the Kishanganga plan. As the upper riparian hegemon, New Delhi needs to manage Islamabadâ€™s anxiety on several such planned projects on the headworks of the Indus system.
For India, the â€˜Tâ€™ word has trumped everything. Terrorism has transformed a thaw in South Asia to cold war terrain again. The three-day attack in Mumbai on 26/11 has reversed years of progress on the bilateral train. Instead of easing the strain, it seems that Ajmal Kasabâ€™s conviction has reinforced inflamed sentiment in India, but informed discourse recognises that he is the kind of non-state actor that has scorched Pakistanâ€™s earth as well.
Seven other accused in the Mumbai carnage are being tried in Pakistani courts, and a fast-track verdict on these would help, even though the acquittal of two Indians involved in the Mumbai attacks has added a partisan twist to the process. However, there is much more than a Pakistani connection to Mumbai, as Hemant Karkareâ€™s widow will say. Given that the reputable chief of Maharashtraâ€™s anti-terrorist squad was killed minutes after the Mumbai attack, the episode leaves a string of questions still unanswered.
This is not to suggest that Islamabad must not act against terror. It will and it must. But to hold one government responsible, especially a democracy with a history of engagement with India, is just plain bad politics. The region is hot with international game-players looking for strategic gains. If we donâ€™t walk the talk soon, we may have more camels in the tent than we bargained for.