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Does anyone in this govt apply their mind?: Pavan Varma on NSA talks

Suhas Munshi | Updated on: 22 August 2015, 13:56 IST
QUICK PILL

The dialogue

  • Chaos prevails over Doval-Aziz talks
  • Such unplanned initiatives will lead to more mistrust

The gaffes

  • The Modi govt lacks a strategic framework
  • India has pushed Nawaz Sharif towards the hawks
  • The Ufa memorandum was in contrast to Sushma Swaraj\'s position

The disarray

  • BJP, PDP seem to be pulling their govt in opposite directions
  • There is hardly any connect between the PMO and the foreign ministry

India has looked particularly shambolic in the last 48 hours.

The run up to the talks between the national security advisers of India and Pakistan, has looked like a kindergarten play gone wrong: complete with wrong cues, mixed lines, absolute chaos.

India first detained Hurriyat leaders, then released them, only to detain them again. It spoke of sending strong messages to Pakistan but managed only garbled ones.

Pakistan continued its provocations unchecked.

Most commentators agree that the disarray surrounding these talks has no diplomatic precedent.

It is uncertain now whether the talks will actually go through.

Pavan K Varma, a former Indian diplomat and a member of the JD(U), analyses Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Pakistan policy, the current mess and the miscalculations that led to it.

The NSA-level talks have come very close to being called off. Do you think another premature termination of dialogue will be a diplomatic setback for India?

This is ad-hocism at its worst. We've taken a step forward and three backwards. This is not thought out, unplanned and non-strategic activism. Of course it's a setback.

When you have initiatives that do not anticipate possibilities of this nature, and you announce them without thinking them through and then cancel them, you only reinforce mistrust and suspicion. That is exactly the opposite of what you were trying to achieve.

Despite having so much time to prepare, how is it that the talks are now close to being called off? How do you look at the Modi government's policy towards Pakistan?

I believe that the current government lacks a strategic framework in its approach to Pakistan. This has been evident from the days when it took power.

After the muscular and aggressive speeches of Narendra Modi castigating the UPA government of being soft towards Pakistan, the first thing he did was to invite Nawaz Sharif along with other SAARC leaders for his swearing in.

At that time, I am told, Sharif did not raise the Kashmir issue, given the nature of the occasion. But while he was still in India, our foreign secretary held a press briefing and raked up the issues.

The net result: when Sharif returned, the only support he had back home for peace and dialogue was forfeited. The hawks got the upper hand.

After that, the incursion across the Line of Control increased. Despite that, inexplicably, unilaterally, this government announced resumption of foreign secretary-level talks.

The talks were suspended in 2013 precisely because of incursions across the LoC. But while the incursions were increasing, he announced the beginning of the talks.

And then they were cancelled because the Pak High Commissioner met with the Hurriyat.

Even if India, Pak resume talks, there will be so much mistrust it will add to confusion

Then we had this meeting in Ufa, from which came out a loosely worded memorandum. This was in stark contrast to the position Modi's own external affairs minister had taken. She had said there will be no talks with Pakistan until the perpetrators of Mumbai were caught and punished.

Now there is no commitment on the issue of voice samples (of the Pakistani terrorists who gave instructions on the phone to the 10 terrorists who carried out 26/11) and attacks across the border have increased.

Over the past one year, the government has made a mockery of the country's foreign policy.

How well do you think has the government responded to the Pak NSA's plans to meet the Hurriyat leadership? What do you have to say about the decision to detain and immediately release separatists?

The government doesn't seem to have a policy on whether the Hurriyat can meet or not meet. So you arrest them or put them under house arrest and, three hours later, release them.

Partly it (the foreign policy failure) is due to their (BJP's) desire to be in power. They are aligned with the PDP and the two alliance partners are pulling in opposite directions.

The net result is a complete flip-flop. I believe this government lacks a strategic framework towards Pakistan, which is ad-hocism at its worst.

After all, what is this government's approach to the Hurriyat? The PDP, its alliance partner wants to talk to them, but the government seems to entangle itself in loops over what path to take.

Where do we see anyone in the government applying their minds?

How much role do you think has the MEA played in India's dealing with Pakistan? Do you think Sushma Swaraj was consulted all along or you see the recent diplomatic developments bearing Modi's stamp?

There is no coordination, first of all, between the MEA and the PMO. Often the foreign minister is not kept in the loop.

A foreign policy, especially with countries like Pakistan or China, is forged on the basis of strategic dialogue, a strategic framework and strategic thinking that anticipates moves and plans policies.

What does appear is that many unilateral decisions are taken in the PMO and the MEA is then informed

The foreign affairs ministry is supposed to provide institutional advise to the PMO, which it can overrule. But that advise is based on consultation within the foreign office.

Now when the foreign office becomes an unthinking accessory to what the PMO has decided, you're devaluing an entire institution.

If the talks are called off, India will have to devise a new strategy to deal with Pakistan. If the talks resume, India will have to approach the talks differently. How would you have advised the government to act, to deal with Pakistan right now and in the long term?

Way forward is for the PM to take a deep breath, sit down and devise a strategic framework. He needs to take in account the fact that Sharif consults with the ISI. So we have to devise a strategy that takes these factors into account.

We also need to reinforce security along the border and give a fitting reply to insurgents.

Right now, even if the NSA-level talks resume they will be borne in suspicion, it will take place in mistrust and the result will be further confusion.

First published: 22 August 2015, 13:56 IST
 
Suhas Munshi @suhasmunshi

He hasn't been to journalism school, as evident by his refusal to end articles with 'ENDS' or 'EOM'. Principal correspondent at Catch, Suhas studied engineering and wrote code for a living before moving to writing mystery-shrouded-pall-of-gloom crime stories. On being accepted as an intern at Livemint in 2010, he etched PRESS onto his scooter. Some more bylines followed in Hindustan Times, Times of India and Mail Today.

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