An expert's point of view on a current event.

Talking the Talk

When the Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers sit down on Thursday, don't expect more than that.


On Thursday, the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan will hold their first meeting since the November 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. And if you believe in omens, the chances of a calm, productive discussion don’t seem good. On Monday, the body of a Sikh man was found, beheaded, in the lawless Khyber Pass, a juncture between Pakistan and Afghanistan once known to conquerors as the "gateway to India." Sikhs in Pakistan are trying to flee for India, afraid of more attacks. The beheading was almost certainly not timed to coincide with New Delhi’s decision to revive the stalled talks, but it has added further tension to a meeting already fraught with diplomatic spats.

The reason these two neighbors are coming together after a year and a half depends on whom you ask. Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir is expected to come to New Delhi with plans to discuss several bilateral issues, but particularly the Kashmir dispute, which his country has always cast as central to any negotiations. India, on the other hand, would like to treat Kashmir as a settled issue at best or, at worst, something that can wait until Pakistan has perceptibly reined in terrorist groups plotting attacks. India’s ruling Congress Party insists that the talks are going to be focused almost entirely –"90 percent," according to party spokesman Abhishek Singhvi — on the terrorism allegedly emanating from Pakistani soil and on what that country’s government is doing to stop it.

With Islamabad set on talking Kashmir and New Delhi assured that it can single-mindedly stick to its plan to discuss terrorism, what (besides everything) could possibly go wrong?

No wonder expectations for the talks in India are low, if not absent altogether. In the past decade and a half, many summit level or official-level talks have taken place. And they’ve all ended the same way: with New Delhi insisting that Pakistan end its support to a host of terrorist groups targeting India, and Islamabad insisting that only "nonstate actors" are involved in these attacks and the government plays no role. This time, India’s expectations are already on the table: "If the process of normalization that we desire with Pakistan is to be sustained and taken forward," Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao said at a meeting at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank, on Monday, "effective action against such groups by the government of Pakistan is an absolute must." Pakistan, meanwhile, would like to spin the resumption of the talks as a gesture of sincerity on its part for a negotiated settlement of all outstanding issues.

Popular opinion in India is pessimistic at best, and many are wondering why Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is talking at all. The main opposition party, the BJP, argues that there is no point in sitting down unless Islamabad takes steps toward prosecuting those behind the Mumbai attacks and works to eliminate terrorist groups more broadly. Islamist terrorism is increasingly a problem for India, they worry, and Pakistan is the root of it. Some point to a recent bomb attack at a bakery in the western city of Pune, a little over 100 miles from Mumbai, which killed 15 people on Feb. 13, to make their case. (Pakistan says it is doing its best, but it can’t guarantee that there will be no more attacks.)

India’s interior minister, P. Chidambaram, has been candid in describing the Thursday meeting as a "talk about talks," lasting only two hours. Singh’s government has been adamant that it is not giving any leeway to its neighbor, only restarting the dialogue.

So given the dismal prospects of success, it’s also not surprising that many in India think the meeting is taking place under strong promptings from Washington. To be sure, the United States would rather that the two countries reconcile. Pakistan’s military expends much of its human and other capital watching the Indian border, when it could be fighting the Taliban, the United States notes with frustration. "The U.S. does not want Pakistan to once again raise the India bogey," C. Uday Bhaskar, one of India’s leading strategic experts, wrote in an email.

But the meeting is unlikely to be mere show for Washington — at least from India’s side. Singh’s administration would rather talk than be silent, because the latter option might cede ground to the very jihadi groups it is hoping to keep down. Lashkar-e-Taiba would see a stall in dialogue as a success in subverting the two countries from reaching a negotiated settlement. There’s also a chance the Pakistan-India talks could be a part of what Singh sees as his emerging legacy. At 77, Singh has reached what may be the last phase of his public life; he is unlikely to contest the next general election in four years’ time.

Perhaps the fact that the talks are taking place at all — and at India’s insistence — is in itself a step forward. Success is far more elusive. For New Delhi, this would mean getting Islamabad to commit to a specific, long-term anti-terrorism mandate. For Islamabad, it would mean persuading New Delhi to incorporate Kashmir as part of the negotiations. So at least this time around, simply sitting down and talking might be the best one can hope for.

Mayank Chhaya is a Chicago-based journalist who has reported on South Asia for close to three decades.