Get Pakistan to set a timetable
By M J Akbar
The drip-dry India-Pakistan peace process has recovered a table, ironically, in the month of mass murderer Ajmal Kasab's conviction. But does it have a timetable?
There is more than one table set out. The menu at Thimphu was similar to the repast at Sharm el-Sheikh; in essence, for four years India has cooked what Pakistan wanted to eat. In the September 2006 talks with Musharraf, Manmohan Singh downgraded terrorism from core issue to common concern. On July 16 last year at Sharm el-Sheikh, he released Pakistan from the consequences of terrorism; the joint statement said: "Action on terrorism should not be linked to the composite dialogue process and these should not be bracketed." After Thimphu, Pakistan's foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi took terrorism off the bilateral map, noting pithily that it was a global concern that was best addressed collectively.
The next time a Kasab turns up, then, Delhi can telephone the United Nations.
Compare this to the alacrity with which Islamabad acted when Washington cracked the whip. Faisal Shahzad was arrested in New York on May 8 for terrorism. Within hours, police picked up suspects in Lahore and the FBI must be interrogating them by now. When Washington talks, Islamabad listens. When Delhi talks, Islamabad talks back. Pakistan has fudged even on Kasab, noting that its experts will "study" the Mumbai special court judgment since they forgot to watch television in November 2008.
Terrorism, in fact, has been reduced to a pro forma presence at the high table, an unwelcome distant cousin shunted to the corner, neither banished nor discussed. One does not know whether Dr Singh forgives, but he certainly has the negotiator's critical need for amnesia. Pak foreign secretary Salman Bashir's sneer that P Chidambaram's dossiers on the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Kasab's handlers in Pakistan were mere literature has already been deleted from the hard disc as Delhi revs up the pace of talks.
If hearts were melting in Islamabad like the Chenab in spring flood, there might have been some justification. But each gesture has been answered by belligerence. Accusations that India helps Baloch secessionists have become a staple of Pakistani commentary after Sharm el-Sheikh. Success at Thimphu persuaded Pakistan to reverse its position on Kashmir. Last Tuesday, Qureshi sneered at Musharraf's "wavering" in a speech to the Pakistani National Assembly and insisted there was no change in the country's "historical" stance. Square one has not looked so square in a long while.
Delhi, in the meanwhile, has been funding long discussions on the virtues of wavering. Sombre experts rub lamps furiously in the hope of arousing a genie who can grant three wishes, or even one. All they manage is a glimpse of the occasional ghost of American ambassadors past. Galbraith, Kennedy's envoy to Nehru, has been resurrected, not for his inimitable wit and wisdom, but for the condominium he constructed for Kashmir, offering India and Pakistan a flat each, with America presumably in charge of watch and ward. The concept is so naively Sixties, it is almost heartwarming.
Every option is on the table except the only one that will work: conversion of the status quo into the basis for a solution. Musharraf called for soft borders and perhaps Dr Singh now regrets he let that moment pass. But before a border can be soft or hard, there has to be a border, and India and Pakistan need therefore to agree on one. The Line of Control, created after the first war, has stood the test of three more. Why mend something that has not been broken?
America has rarely been as ambidextrous as it is at the India-Pak table, officially absent and unofficially omnipresent. The Pakistani media, ever delighted to turn implicit into explicit, made it a point to mention that Robert Blake, former deputy head of mission in Delhi, was at Thimphu; and on May 4, the present ambassador to Delhi Timothy Roemer met Asif Zardari in Islamabad. American foreign policy is uncomplicated: what is good for America is good for the world; therefore the world, out of self-interest, must adjust its calculus to fit in with American requirements. Obama's highest priority is victory in Afghanistan, and Pakistan has been the obedient ally, with one condition — get the Indian army off our back in Kashmir and give us "soft strategic space" in Kabul.
India is loath to be left out of Washington's affections. Convinced of the urgency of American need, Islamabad has nudged up the ante. A clever Delhi response would be to offer the shell of dialogue on Kashmir and let inherent contradictions destroy the substance.
India has set the table. It must now deal with Pakistan's timetable.
( Times of India Column : 9th May 2010)