Why India came back to the negotiating table

ISLAMABAD: Renewed international pressure and growing realisation in New Delhi that the rapidly changing situation in Afghanistan could deprive it of its strategic leverage in the region has forced the sudden change of heart in India regarding ties with Pakistan, according to diplomats and analysts.

“It was being increasingly felt by strategists in New Delhi that after recent conferences on Afghanistan that endorsed President Hamid Karzai’s plan for reintegrating Taliban, India was being left out and Pakistan might take the centre stage,” a diplomat told Dawn when asked about the Indian proposal for resumption of bilateral talks.

It all started with Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao’s call to her Pakistani counterpart Salman Bashir, almost a week ago, inviting him to Delhi in February for talks on wide-ranging issues that have been constraining the bilateral ties, particularly in the aftermath of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks.

She expressed Indian government’s willingness to discuss issues besides terrorism which would remain the focus of the parleys.

Ms Rao went to the extent of offering negotiations on contentious issues like the water dispute, but stayed short of suggesting resumption of the Composite Dialogue.

India’s eagerness for resuming talks was evident from Home Minister P. Chidambaram’s belated admission that there was also a local Indian link to Mumbai attacks for which New Delhi had earlier been blaming Pakistan-based terror groups only.

Things afterwards started moving at a rapid pace towards detente. Pakistan sought clarifications and on Friday High Commissioner Shahid Malik met Ms Rao in New Delhi to discuss the agenda and possible dates for the meeting.

Although Pakistan is insisting on accepting nothing short of Composite Dialogue, there is realisation in the Foreign Office that sticking to revival of peace talks may jeopardise the opportunity for normalisation of strained ties.

The thinking is that the offer of initial contacts should be availed and subsequently taken forward to full resumption of Composite Dialogue.

“The attempt is to keep talking about the issues which are of concern to us,” Mr Malik said.

Although analysts and diplomats believe there are a number of factors that triggered the rethinking in India, the primary reason remains the changing scenario in Afghanistan coupled with the impending reintegration of Taliban in Afghan society.

Afraid of losing all the strategic gains made by India in Afghanistan by investing over $2 billion, it was thought that Indian interests could be best served by re-engaging with Pakistan.

The Istanbul and London conferences and acknowledgment by Nato commanders that Indian role in Afghanistan needed to be clipped to address Pakistan’s concerns showed the proverbial writing on the wall to the Congress government.

The global endorsement of President Karzai’s plans for reintegrating Taliban in Afghan society, motivated by the West’s eagerness to get out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible, was seen in New Delhi as strengthening of Pakistan’s position because of the role Islamabad was expected to play in wooing the Taliban. Equally worrisome for India was Pakistan’s offer of training the Afghan police and army personnel.

Sustained international pressure on New Delhi to mend fences with Islamabad also played a role.

The pressure from the UK and US increased in recent months, as the coalition forces in Afghanistan got ready for the final push in the war-torn country before pulling out.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, speaking at a Kashmir day event, also attributed India’s change in stance as a manifestation of the increasing international pressure on New Delhi.

Progress in the prosecution of alleged mastermind of Mumbai attacks in Rawalpindi courts where the accused have been indicted after lengthy delays and the first witnesses deposed last week provided the right ‘face saver’ to India to restart talks with Pakistan.

Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna, in his interaction with media personnel, described these developments as constructive signs.

“Any step forward in the direction of Pakistan also investigating the Mumbai attacks will certainly make it easier for India to carry out normalisation of business with Pakistan,” Mr Krishna had noted.

Additionally, detractors of the Indian government began to characterise Indian stance of not engaging with Pakistan as futile. The upcoming Saarc events – the interior ministers’ meeting in Islamabad and the summit in Thimphu, Bhutan -– hastened the Indian decision, because it no longer wanted to be seen as stalling the peace process.

With all set for the two countries to resume bilateral talks, there are worrying signs as well. Jamaatud Dawa, accused of being a front organisation for banned Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group blamed for Mumbai attacks, is seen as gaining strength after holding a series of meetings in Muzaffarabad, Peshawar and Lahore.

The first high-profile activities by the group since the Mumbai attacks have almost coincided with a thaw in Pakistan-India relations.

This in itself may throw a spanner in the works and the much-awaited restoration of peace process may elude the people of the two countries.
Baqir Sajjad Syed

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