By Kamran Yousaf
In December 2015 when Dr T C A Raghavan was still India’s high commissioner to Pakistan, Islamabad and New Delhi took a giant step forward to normalise their troubled ties. Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj travelled to Islamabad to attend the regional conference on Afghanistan. On the sidelines, she held talks with her Pakistani counterpart Sartaj Aziz. The parleys led to an unexpected breakthrough as the two nuclear-armed neighbours agreed to revive the bilateral dialogue to discuss all issues, including the long running Kashmir dispute. After months of tensions, there was a sense of optimism all around.
Against this backdrop, I got a chance to interact with Dr Raghavan at a farewell reception hosted in his honour by Anwar Baig, a former senator. I asked him about the prospects of Indo-Pak rapprochement. I was expecting that he would give a positive assessment. But to my utter surprise, his response was not encouraging. Only a few months later, I realised that his skepticism was not off the mark. Despite agreeing to resume the comprehensive bilateral dialogue, the two countries could not move an inch. Their foreign secretaries, who were supposed to finalise the roadmap for the peace process, baulked at meeting each other. From that point onward the relationship between the two neighbors has only gone from bad to worse. The slide in ties was not according to the script the two countries had been following for last two decades.
Over the years, a certain patron has emerged in the relationship between Pakistan and India. Often a bout of tense stalemate led to bilateral talks and sustained engagement was suddenly disrupted by unforeseen events. Take the example of May 1998, when both countries tested nuclear weapons. Tensions were at an all-time high amid a flurry of jingoistic statements. But very few had an idea that this high voltage affair would soon see a dramatic turnaround. A few months after both countries went nuclear, then Indian prime minister A B Vajpayee took a famous bus journey to Lahore in what was dubbed as the dawn of a new era. His visit culminated in a landmark accord between both sides to resolve all issues through dialogue. But that optimism was short-lived as both countries were soon engaged in the Kargil conflict, dashing any hopes for peace. Then in July 2001 an extraordinary summit meeting between then military ruler General Pervez Musharraf and the Indian prime minister. The summit, however, could not break the ice. Relations continued to remained tense.
In January 2004, however, the two sides agreed to resume the composite dialogue. The process went on uninterrupted for four years. The sustained talks through both official and back channels had almost clinched an elusive deal on Kashmir. But the November 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks derailed the process again.
But another phase of tense ties ensued. The dramatic ascent of Modi to the premiership might have initially raised optimism but eventually led to one of the worst phases of Indo-Pak ties. Given the historical perspective and familiar patron, Pakistan and India should have been talking to each other. But that did not happen.
A new script has been written in view of the changing regional and international environment. Under the new scheme of thinking, Pakistan and India may be in for never ending showdown. In the old script, the US played a critical role in the Indo-Pak relationship. It was Washington that always nudged Delhi to stay engaged with Islamabad whenever the two countries were on the brink. But the US has now abandoned that policy and has finally decided to side with India.