The Prime Minister’s Office recently denied the authenticity of a report published in the Times from London, stating that the PM opened ‘secret’ talks with Pakistan’s army chief Gen. Kayani. The report mentions that contact was established 10 months ago and subsequently led to the thaw at Mohali. The talks were initiated to confirm if the army was on board as Kayani controls Pakistan’s India policy. If the report is to be believed, Gilani’s visit yielding to the ‘Mohali spirit’ indicates the sensibility of the General, whose foresight proved timely and successful.
For the PMO to deny any such contact is in inline with India’s policy. India’s aim is to expand the democratic constituency within Pakistan in the hope of extracting a democratic peace dividend. Reaching out to the army in Pakistan would weaken the civilian dispensation there and confer an unwarranted proscription of the army seen as unfriendly to India. Kayani, as brought out in Bob Woodward’s book, admits to being ‘India-centric’. With little movement on the Mumbai terror trial in Pakistan and the Indian government being on the defensive over numerous issues, India’s distancing from the report is expectedly prompt and credible.
It is understandable that the custodians of Pakistan’s strategic rudder maintain customary reservations about India based on its capabilities and intentions. Kayani, having been earlier a DGMO and the DG ISI, can thus be reasonably expected to be wary of India. A report in Wikileaks detects Britain’s Foreign Minister describing Kayani’s ‘reluctance’ as the ‘remaining obstacle’ to a deal on Kashmir. Also, Kayani had a lead role in the strategic talks with the US and therefore exercises the supreme veto power in Pakistan.
This is all the more reason for India to ascertain if he and the army are interested in taking forward the peace agenda. ‘Once bitten, twice shy’ implies that India take care in resuming the peace process having faced setbacks in the wake of the Lahore bus ride and in lapse of the ‘backchannel’ with the exit of Musharraf. Given the internal weakness of the Zardari-Gilani combine, taking out an insurance amounts to strategic behavior.
Therefore, it would have been right and practical for the government to have established such contact. In fact the contact needs to have been instituted with the full knowledge of the Pakistani civilian establishment. Since the government claims not to have done so, it can reasonably be faulted for not doing so.
Currently, a resumption of the process is underway, even if the term ‘composite dialogue’ does not figure. Representatives of line ministries involved in the various strands of the dialogue are scheduled to meet including the defence secretaries within a time table spread out till July 2011. The foreign secretaries are then to ‘wrap up’ and set the stage for the Foreign Ministers meet in July.
Meanwhile, the process requires insulation. If the Pakistan Army is the hitch then its position has to be accurately determined. Secret contacts can prove useful towards this end. The government’s denial indicates that this has not been done. In case it had, then in face of the news report the government could have chosen to remain quiet, as it had done in case of the Kasuri revelations on the progress made by the then ‘secret’ ‘backchannel’.
Indeed, the government needs to drop a line to Kayani and there is ample reason to do so. That this has not yet occurred perhaps owes to India’s internal bureaucratic schisms. The foreign office in charge of the peace process seems possessive about it. Even the engagement over nuclear doctrines that had been mandated by the MoU at Lahore had been conducted by a Foreign Service officer. In case the Pakistan army is to be engaged then this can amount to including the military in the dialogue. This might be difficult to concede for the Foreign Service bureaucracy, but is not with out precedence. And while the earlier military to military contacts were in the wake of post war negotiations. This time these will be adduced to create the conditions for détente, generally seen as a foreign policy problem.
A narrow understanding neglects the Pakistan army’s perception of its power asymmetry with India. Unless it is addressed, it is unlikely that the army will dispense with its veto. In other words, India’s reaching out will remain in a vacuum. The problem that arises from such initiatives being still born or lacking in ballast is that it weakens the liberal lobby and ideas behind them. This creates advantages for those preferring adverse relations for their own institutional or sectional purposes.
A work around can be through a strategic dialogue involving the security establishments in both states; comprising respective representatives of the NSCS, the defence ministry and uniformed interlocutors. The government must grab the nettle, accept responsibility and justify it with investment of political capital in taking the initiatives to their logical conclusions. This will create the space necessary for the eventual and inevitable ‘concessions’ which the government is shying away from accepting through the denial of the report.