As Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives in the US for a packed week of engagements at the UN and on the west coast, that question is back again: Will there be a Modi-Nawaz Sharif (Modi’s Pakistan counterpart) meeting on the sidelines of UN General Assembly? Speculation aside, it would be best if the PMs of Pakistan and India did not meet at the UN, and also if the two national security advisors, the two foreign ministers — indeed the entire delegations — just kept away from each other at New York. Such meetings have all too often become public spectacles, in which the first instinct of each side is to use the media to play to domestic galleries and claim an emphatic victory over the other. India lost Sharm el-Sheikh, Pakistan lost Ufa. Result: 0-0.
Most sensible people agree that India and Pakistan cannot stay at 0-0 forever. The reality of being two nuclear-armed neighbours with bad history means they have to meet again, but without turning it into a bloodsport, without needing to score points off each other. How? Perhaps recent history can show the way. It was just about a decade ago that the two were able to pull back from what seemed like an irretrievable situation after the 2001 attack on Parliament. India downgraded its diplomatic mission in Islamabad, and cut off transport and other links. Troops massed on the border on either side. It was certainly much worse than it is today.
Neither a Hawk Nor a Dove, written by Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri, foreign minister of Pakistan during the decade-long Pervez Musharraf military rule, and recently released in Pakistan, is a timely reminder of that period, when even as the world predicted a nuclear showdown between the two rivals, they managed to pull back from the brink. Not just that, that decade is seen as the period when relations between the two countries were better than at any other time, and held much promise of normalisation.
There are no big revelations in the book. But Kasuri reminds us of a crucial element to that engagement: A secret backchannel, whose meetings remained confidential even after the existence of the process came to be known. “The fact is that all [India-Pakistan] meetings of foreign ministers are preceded and followed by extensive media coverage and, what is worse, intense speculation. This enables the opponents of the process to put a negative spin on the whole process,” Kasuri writes. He could well have been writing about present-day encounters.
There were two successive backchannel processes — one between diplomat Niaz Naik and journalist R.K. Mishra just before the then Pakistan army chief, Musharraf, overthrew the Nawaz government; and a later one that spanned two governments in Delhi, between Musharraf confidante Tariq Aziz and R.K. Mishra, Brajesh Mishra, J.N. Dixit and finally Satinder Lambah from India.
Kasuri confirms much of what was known about the secret process, aimed at exploring the possibility of drafting an agreement on Kashmir. Though few knew exactly what was going on in those meetings, held in different capitals across the world, Musharraf periodically revealed details about what he called the “four-point formula” in interviews. In 2009, a New Yorker article called “The Back Channel” spoke about how only semicolons remained to be finalised in the agreement. The Indian side, which never said much about the backchannel officially, has been dismissive about reports that the finalisation of an agreement was just a “semicolon away”.
But in his book, The Accidental Prime Minister, Sanjaya Baru, who was media advisor to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, gives enough details about the progress made on the Kashmir issue through this secret process to show that it was not all just a figment of Kasuri’s or the New Yorker’s imaginations.
In Kasuri’s telling, the backchannel became possible because the two interlocutors were not just mandated by their leaders, but had their complete and total confidence. This in turn ensured that the turnaround time on modifications, reformulations and revisions on drafts was brief. While there were only two interlocutors, one from each side, at any given time, inputs into the process came from multiple sources in the two governments. “It is unthinkable that so many exchanges of non-papers could have remained confidential in the absence of a backchannel. In Pakistan and India, hardly anything remains secret; to make matters worse, the leakages would almost always be selective and tendentious,” writes the former foreign minister.
At this time, what India and Pakistan urgently need is a similar process that allows both sides to speak to each other, away from political compulsions played out under the glare of the media, without leaks, without needing to play victor and vanquished. Such a backchannel should have the initial mandate of preparing for a structured meeting between Modi and Nawaz that will result in a well-considered joint statement. The most suitable time for this meeting would be on the sidelines of the Saarc summit. Modi will need to visit Islamabad in early 2016 for the summit, unless he is thinking of scuppering the meet and squandering the little goodwill that his initial South Asia outreach garnered, especially from the smaller countries that need the regional grouping much more than India or Pakistan.
In 2004, another BJP PM decided after much hesitation and a couple of security scares that he would go to the Pakistan capital for that year’s Saarc summit and meet Musharraf on the sidelines. The joint statement that came out of that meeting between Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Musharraf was a landmark document, but much work had gone on behind the scenes since early 2003, including the declaration by Pakistan of a ceasefire, a huge unilateral confidence-building measure, that India reciprocated in November that year.
There must be a similarly thought-out two-step towards a meeting in Islamabad next year on the sidelines of Saarc — perhaps preceded by a unilateral confidence-building measure from the Indian side (visas?) — instead of a speed date between the two leaders on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. And the backchannel must continue to work to keep the engagement going.