A case of exploding mangoes
India-Pakistan talks have much in common with a case of ripe mangoes: must be handled with care, are easily bruised, and decay if left too many hours out on the negotiating table. And by mid-July, they just rot. That last point is simply a facetious way of pointing out that the Agra summit in 2001, the Sharm-el-Sheikh meeting last year and the Islamabad bilateral were all conducted between July 14-July 16.
But it would be shallow to lump Islamabad with those other two failed negotiations, for a number of reasons. To begin with, all the preparation that went into it. Ever since the dates for the bilateral were set in May, diplomats have conducted a sustained search for common ground. By last week, two things were extremely clear to both sides: that terror, and especially action in the 26/11 investigation was going to be the starting point of the talks, but the two would walk away with a renewed dialogue- and a structure of meetings on all outstanding issues including Kashmir, water, Sir Creek, and various confidence building measures in place. As a result it is an even bigger shame that the talks went the way Agra and Sharm-el-Sheikh did, both of which lacked the painstaking agenda detailing that went into the Islamabad meeting- along with meetings of the Foreign secretaries and the Home Ministers before it.
So what went wrong? Many ominous signs should have sent out early warning bells. To begin with, the rare appearance of the Prime Minister of Pakistani occupied Kashmir alongside Hizbul Mujahideen commander Syed Salahuddin at a rally where they both railed against the Foreign Ministers talks. The fact that the Pakistani government had been remarkably quiet about the protests in the valley clearly hadn't gone down with the sections of the establishment that countenanced that rally.
Next came revelations from Home Secretary GK Pillai- that during his interrogation LeT operative David Coleman Headley had alleged the ISI had planned and directed the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks "through and through". In his defence, Mr Pillai merely repeated what Headley had said, and the information he referred to had apparently already been shared with Pakistani officials during Mr. Chidambaram's visit- but the timing of his remarks at The Indian Express's Idea Exchange meant that by the time SM Krishna landed in Islamabad, no one was willing to believe that Mr Pillai was acting alone. "Are you telling me," sneered a Pakistani journalist friend, "that a secretary to the government of India can accuse the Pakistani government of masterminding the Mumbai attacks a day before talks between the two governments without clearance, and not be pulled up for it?". After all, others pointed out, if Mr Chidambaram could display the discretion he did on his trip to Pakistan- handing over the names of serving intelligence officers identified by Headley, but never referring publicly to the agency, then surely India was aware of the sensitivity of accusing the all-powerful ISI while attempting to extract promises from their government. Ministry of External Affairs officials too admitted that they had little defence, except to deny there had been any design in them.
If Mr Pillai's remarks began the process of derailing the talks before they started, and the deadlock between the delegations ensured that the tracks developed cracks, one can safely say Mr Qureshi simply dynamited what was left of them. His anger at the joint press conference, followed up by his mocking the considerably older Mr. Krishna's 'limited mandate' even while Krishna was his guest on Pakistani soil has shocked many within his own country as it outraged everyone in ours.
But it may help to probe that outburst further- after all, in his haste at point-scoring, Mr Qureshi attempted to destroy the very house of cards he had himself taken such pains to build. Shah Mehmood Qureshi is no newcomer to the India-Pakistan peace process. He has been a proponent of better ties, and an integral part of the original 'track-2' 'Balusa' group more than a decade ago. In the 1990s his groups' work on Indo-Pakistani issues was considered path-breaking. Both in and out of power, Qureshi made talks with India his forte, and has often been criticized in Pakistan for being too 'doveish'. An example of his efforts came after Thimphu, when his statements on Pakistan's wastage of water being a bigger issue than blaming India for the shortage went a long way in calming the rhetoric down. A meeting of the Indus water commissioners that followed was, as a result, able to make progress.
At the press conference, while we in India saw his sternness and heard his belligerent tone on Pillai, the Pakistani press saw exactly the opposite. The Nation's front page account the next morning said "Mr. Qureshi did not dare interrupt Mr. Krishna", accusing Qureshi of remaining silent on Kashmir and Balochistan." "India has come away the winner of this dialogue," moaned another editorial "By getting Mr. Qureshi to accept terror and action on the 26/11 attacks as the most significant issue, while ignoring other 'core' issues." The most stinging criticism was reserved for Qureshi's acceptance of Omar Abdullah as the "head of a democratically elected government in Jammu and Kashmir". The Pakistani Foreign Minister certainly breached diplomatic etiquette with his attack on SM Krishna that afternoon, but his remarks may be seen as the reaction of a Pakistani politician under pressure fighting for survival.
But unlike Agra and Sharm-el-Sheikh, there is still something to be salvaged from the Islamabad detente. The two sides have already gone into damage control, making it clear they will press ahead with the dialogue process. India and Pakistan's statements in Islamabad recognized terror as their common enemy, and Pakistan on paper committed to speeding up the Mumbai trial process, and hunting down the masterminds. The dignified reaction of Mr Krishna, choosing to rise above the acrimony, has also been one of the truly positive features of the engagement. Unlike post- Sharm-el-Sheikh, the government is standing firm, the Congress party is backing the peace process, and they may yet have the opportunity to put some of the bitterness behind them at the Afghan conference in Kabul on Monday that both Foreign ministers will attend.
Diplomats now warily eyeing the possibility of another round of talks have the benefit of some lessons from Islamabad, that hold true for the case of mangoes too. Like how the talks can perish, even explode when put under the harsh lights of live television, and domestic pressure.
More about Suhasini HaidarSuhasini Haidar is Diplomatic Editor, The Hindu. Earlier, she was a senior editor and prime time anchor for India's leading 24-hour English news channel CNN-IBN, and also hosted the signature show, 'World View with Suhasini Haidar'. Over the course of her 17-year career, Suhasini has covered the most challenging stories and conflicts from the most diverse regions including Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Libya, Lebanon and Syria. In India, she has covered the external affairs beat for over a decade and her domestic assignments include in-depth reportage from Kashmir. In 2011 she won the Indian Television Academy-GR8! Award for 'Global news coverage',and the Exchange4Media 'Enba' award for best spot news reporting from Libya. In 2010, She won the NewsTelevision NT 'Best TV News Presenter' Award. Suhasini is the only journalist to have interviewed Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his family, a show that won the prestigious Indian Television Academy award as 'Best Chat show' for the year.
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