The ‘negotiating table’ riddle!

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Friendly Fire
Khalid Saleem
With the brouhaha surrounding domestic squabbles, the once vaunted India-Pakistan peace process appears to have been relegated to the proverbial square one. Not that the bilateral talks ever appeared to be more than a diversionary tactic of sorts. In fact, it would appear that in the not too distant future the process may well be denuded of the proverbial fig leaf that has afforded it a semblance of respectability of sorts. With this background, it came as something of a surprise to read in the media that Pakistan’s out-going High Commissioner to India had expressed the opinion that “it is time for India and Pakistan to return to the negotiating table without further ado and pre-conditions”. Borders a wee bit on wishful thinking, does it not? One wonders what the ‘take’ of the Foreign Office on this would be!
In the not too recent past, one was a trifle intrigued as to why the Pakistan Foreign Office – that ought to know better – so often allowed its spokespersons to fly off the handle when alluding to what were after all no more than mundane developments. To take a random instance of over a decade ago, the leaders of India and Pakistan had had a meeting in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly (was it 2004?). Our Foreign Office spokesperson, in an outburst of ebullient enthusiasm, chose to describe the event as an ‘historic’ development. If ever there was a loaded statement this was one! The spokesman had considered it fit to ignore the dictum that such loaded statements are not to be made lightly and certainly not by professional diplomats. One had erroneously presumed then that this effusion signified that the spokesman was in the know of a thing or two not in the ken of us lesser mortals. By hindsight, though, it became clear later that this was due to a mere distinct ‘disconnect’ between the spokesman and ground reality.
Another subject, that has been more misused than used, is related to the elusive quest for ‘peace’. Tom, Dick and Harry all take it upon themselves to dilate upon and pen down odes to the quest for peace between India and Pakistan. The recent ‘dialogue’ in Dubai is a case in point. One would be the last to pick holes in the quest for this worthy objective. The fact remains, however, that the matter is not as simple as it has been made out to be. Peace between the two neighbours is well worth striving for. Peace, though, can come only after all impediments in its path are taken care of; not before. All discussion about ‘peace’, without dilating upon the matter of prior equitable settlement of contentious issues, is tantamount to putting the cart before the horse.
Having gone through the weighty dissertations of the best analysts this blessed country has on offer, one is left with a feeling of déjà vu (if that is the phrase one wants). The undeniable fact remains that this “historic” road has been traversed several times in the past. Sad to say, each time we emerged with our fingers singed. Who can forget that President Ayub Khan’s Joint Declaration of 1962 with Prime Minister Nehru had also been enthusiastically described at that time as “historic”. Leaders of the United States and United Kingdom, too, had proffered guarantees of a sort. What ultimately came out of the whole exercise during 1962-1963 is hardly anything to be proud of.
One cannot help but notice that there is no dearth in Pakistan of those who still would wish to lean on the crutch of the “American connection”. But, then, how much credence can Pakistan give to the assurances of an ‘Ally’, addicted as it is to ‘do-more-itis’; what to talk of such deviations as the Doctrine of Pre-emption and the India-United States nuclear deal? Various visits to the region by personalities from the United States – and Britain – have been related more to perpetuating the ‘war on terror’ than to any latent desire to bring peace to the subcontinent. It is a matter of some regret that we are still willing, nay yearning, to clutch at drifting straws!
One thing that leaves one in bit of a daze, though, is the continued hankering after the somewhat convoluted process of the so-called “composite dialogue”. Things appear to be flowing in so many parallel currents (and cross-currents, if you please) that the process of unraveling the skein appears to be little better than a fool’s errand. The pity is that the elusive ‘political will’ – of which the, then, Foreign Office spokesman once talked with so much fervor – has turned out to be no more solid than a mirage that is visible only through rose-coloured spectacles. One must not forget that it is this very (elusive nature of the) political will that has been the bane of all constructive moves in the past towards the ephemeral goal of peace and harmony in South Asia. Life is so full of unexpected surprises that the best one can do is to wait, see and learn. The lessons of the past few years hardly inspire confidence, though. With the new hard-liner dispensation in New Delhi, events appear to have taken a turn for the worse. Hindsight, evidently, serves more to hurt than to heal.
But, then, as the French would say, ca c’est la vie!
— The writer is a former ambassador and former assistant secretary general of OIC.
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