India-Pakistan talks: the need for a grand negotiating strategy

After bilateral talks between India and Pakistan, Medha Bisht analyses the underlying issues plaguing the negotiations.
Medha Bisht
2 August 2010

On 16 July 2010, the Foreign Ministers of India and Pakistan concluded bilateral talks in Islamabad. Precisely, a year before, in July 2009, Manmohan Singh and Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani issued a joint statement at Sharm-el Sheikh. Though the venue had changed, what remained was the scathing critical eye of the media and lack of diplomatic foresight to shape a positive trajectory for India-Pakistan relations. What went wrong in Islamabad? Media mismanagement, lack of political will, the premature meeting of foreign secretaries, domestic dynamics, are some catchword explanations to describe the failure of the Islamabad talks. While all of these are fitting explanations, a detailed analysis could perhaps provide useful insights.

“Claim” tactics are the first reason for the failure of talks. Pakistan claims that the issue of terrorism on which India has taken a positional stand since 26/11 has impeded progress. Meanwhile, many in India claim that Pakistan’s one point agenda of Kashmir as the core issue often obfuscates the genuine intent of engagement. This positional posturing has unfortunately created an asymmetry of interests on both sides as the stakes on these issues are high at the domestic level. The ripple effect of the Indian home secretary’s statement linking the ISI to the 26/11 terror attacks just before the talks were to commence is indicative not only of the embedded distrust, but also reflects the appeal and proclivity of India-Pakistan engagement to spoilers. Though Manmohan Singh has expressed explicit disappointment over the timing of the statement, the deadlock suggests that premature claiming tactics can interfere with the spirit of engagement. The thrust of the engagement should therefore be to frame an agenda which points towards a potential joint win-win possibility.

“Domestic political structures” is the second reason for the failed talks, as they clearly seem to be guiding the engagement strategy of both sides. Though not surprising in a democratic set-up, coordination of internal and external facets is perhaps the only way to move forward. However, flexibility in exploring creative solutions on the bilateral front has taken a back seat, given the reigning constraints on the representative negotiators. This is quite reflective in the outcome of the present talks, which reveal the overriding impact of domestic structures on bilateral negotiations. General Kayani’s meeting with Zardari and Gilani just before their meeting with the Indian foreign minister is quite suggestive of the army’s role in shaping the hawkish posture of the civilian government. It is therefore not surprising that the Pakistan establishment continue to take an extreme position on Kashmir.

Meanwhile, on the Indian side too, a clear lack of consensus is noticeable. The varying sets of concerns that different ministries and political parties share is perhaps the reason for this. For instance, while the home ministry is concerned about homeland security, the defence ministry is concerned about increasing infiltration and import of terrorism into the Kashmir Valley. Meanwhile, the ministry of economic affairs is arguably the only ministry where visible steps towards converging interests on cooperation can be identified. Complicating this situation further are the opinions and ideologies of various political parties in India, who through their own agendas can weaken the political posturing of the central government.

Given these myriad challenges, it is necessary therefore to formulate a cohesive agenda, mobilize support amongst domestic constituents in order to define the key principals which can be agreed by all actors and parties. The key principals would not only enable effective posturing on issues at the bilateral level, but would also engage the key constituencies at the domestic level. Though there are various ways of engaging domestic constituents, a multi-level, multi-layered engagement perhaps is most instructive. Much effort therefore needs to be undertaken at the domestic level before offering engagement at the bilateral level. The domestic-external interface in India-Pakistan relations is thus an important key to break the diplomatic impasse.

“Unimaginative grand engagement” is the third and final reason behind the failure of the talks. Grand engagement means to utilize available means to reach the desired ends. Thus it is appropriate to ask at this juncture as to what really is the end goal of India-Pakistan rapprochement. Is it just political posturing or is it to arrive at joint problem solving approaches on issues which impact the lives of common people in both countries?

‘Decomposing Negotiations’ is a famous negotiation technique proposed by Howard Raiffa, which propounds categorization of issues into various groupings or subcategories. In the India-Pakistan case, issues can be grouped under three categories: economics, security, territory. While this categorization is just illustrative, under the first category (economics), trade and economic issues can be covered, under the second (security), support to terrorism from Pakistani soil and infiltration from Pakistan can be discussed, and under the third (territory), the issue of Kashmir can be discussed. Though divided in different grouping, trade-offs within one category, say economics, should be tied to trade-offs within other categories, say security. Each category can be further divided into various sub-categories, thus increasing the zone of engagement. Raiffa suggests that interdependence between various sectors should be looked at, rather than undertaking an isolated sectoral engagement on specific issues.

In other words, sub-negotiations on economic issues should not be solved without taking into account the grand trade-offs on issues under other categories. The visits between home secretaries and foreign ministers, which took place between 24 June and 16 July 2010, should be guided by this approach. This integrationist perspective, however, would require close co-ordination between various agencies and ministries, as well as clarity of the desired end that the two countries seek to arrive at. Moreover, on the territorial issue, dialogue with potential stakeholders in Kashmir is important. Internal dialogue between New Delhi and the state government as well as engagement with the opposition parties and separatist groups in Kashmir is a necessary if not sufficient condition.

At the bilateral level, priority of groupings could be identified, which of course would be different for both countries. For instance, while India might prioritize security as its number one priority, Pakistan might consider territoriality as its number one priority. When such disparity lies across groupings, a sector specific engagement can be flawed, as it currently is and thus inevitably leads to claiming tactics. Thus, a grand engagement can be effective in addressing basic underlying interests. Significantly, it must be deliberated upon at crucial junctures, what really is the end product that both countries desire to achieve.

The Indian foreign secretary has made an official announcement that talks have not collapsed and would resume in the coming months. Though no time line has been specified, perhaps it is urgent that the available time be spent wisely in thinking about a grand negotiating strategy. The primary focus of the Indian government should be on handling internal differences and closely co-ordinating the interests of various parties. Balancing issues across sectors and identifying the consensus principle on India-Pakistan engagement should be the key agenda of the central government. An informed stakeholder engagement at the domestic level, can not only enhance the negotiating posture of India, but in the long run also concretise, refine and endow confidence to the negotiators representing the Indian government.

Three steps are identified for informing India-Pakistan engagement. First, frame the dialogue process in appropriate terms, so that it is inclusive of the interests and stakes of both parties. Second, engage potential stakeholders at the domestic level taking account of their interests and demands. This is an important step and it can significantly be called the preparatory phase. Third, exercise effective leadership at the domestic and bilateral level. Engagement and dialogue are really the key components. While at the domestic level, coordination amongst various actors and collaboration across issues is important, at the bilateral level, adopting a grand negotiating style, as stated before would prove useful. Pakistan has already expressed interest in a composite dialogue on issues pertaining to India-Pakistan engagement. The coming six months are therefore crucial for crafting a grand design for initiating dialogue with Pakistan.


Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData