Negotiating with non-negotiators

India needs to re-work its Pakistan policy by talking to Beijing and Moscow rather than Islamabad.

Published: 16th Jan 2017   9:29 pm Updated: 17th Jan 2017   5:00 pm

Indo-Pak relations have oscillated, over the past 70 years, between uneasy calm and open hostility. 

For Islamabad, the initial narrative on bilateral relations, based on religious divide, shifted dramatically after the creation of Bangladesh. The tipping point lay in the all-consuming defeat at the hands of the Indian military, both on the eastern and western fronts and the abject surrender of Pakistan’s so-called ‘crack troops’. Thereafter, for Islamabad, anti-India policies became a matter of izzat.

I recall a Pakistani diplomat telling me that his father was among the soldiers, who had marched through the streets of Karachi along with other soldiers who had surrendered to Indian troops. They stoically bore the abuses hurled by common Pakistanis for the humiliation suffered by the loss of East Pakistan. This would not be forgiven or forgotten by the next generation, he had told me. I believe him.

Islamabad’s Strategy

The military has continued to portray India as an enemy state and ‘normalcy’ in relations would emerge only when loss of territory is avenged. This is integral to Islamabad’s revenge game plan, for as long as the military establishment determines Pakistan’s future. They believe it to be their moral obligation to truncate India through the ‘liberation’ of Kashmir.

The Indian strategy of negotiating a peaceful relationship with Pakistan lacks realism. A series of genuine efforts over seven decades, driven by political support, have yielded no results. For Islamabad, failed talks are part of its strategy.

The negotiations are marred by a number of factors:

* First, negotiations, which successfully conclude, must be based on mutual trust. This is clearly absent. A severe trust deficit characterised the relationship since 1947, was aggravated by the Bangladesh war, and was reinforced after India signed the 123 Agreement with the US excluding Pakistan. This is unlikely to change.

* Second, negotiations are between equals. After the loss of Bangladesh, the relationship has become asymmetric. Moreover, the image of both countries varies significantly. While India is seen as a rising global power, Pakistan is widely perceived as a troubled and troubling state.

* Third, negotiators know their dialogue partners. India is forced to negotiate with the civilian government while being fully cognizant that it is the military, which is negotiating from behind the curtain. For New Delhi, it would be self-defeating to bypass the civilian government and initiate open dialogue with the military. This is a challenging dilemma and will persist.

* Fourth, inequality in relations forces the lesser side to seek balance through external means. For decades, Islamabad was Washington’s blue-eyed baby. This was especially apparent during the Bangladesh war when the US sent the Seventh Fleet to put pressure on New Delhi. When Indo-US relations improved, Islamabad shifted its allegiance and found a strong ally in Beijing. Islamabad also reached out to Moscow. Both developments will dramatically impact India’s strategic interests.

Dialogue Partners

The onus lies on India to rebalance the situation because the status quo is not in New Delhi’s interest. To negotiate with the non-negotiator, New Delhi needs to recognise that talks succeed only when you talk with the puppeteer and not the puppet. Given recent developments, New Delhi’s dialogue partners need to be Beijing and Moscow, and no longer Islamabad. This is the strategic shift needed in the Indian foreign and security policy. This has its challenges, but the dividends would be significant.

India’s time-tested friendship with Moscow has developed serious cracks over the last two years, since New Delhi was perceived by Moscow as seeking proximity to the West at the cost of old friends. President Putin conveyed his displeasure through multiple means, including agreeing to a defence relationship with Islamabad. Winning back Moscow’s confidence would be in India’s interest.

Beijing, however, poses a different challenge since it has shown utter disregard for India’s concerns. For Beijing, India is an irritant. China has repeatedly taken positions that are inimical to Indian interests. This is not likely to change in the immediate future because, in Beijing’s calculus, India could emerge as a serious threat, given its proximity to the US and more importantly, its ability to emerge as an economic powerhouse.

Beijing’s behaviour should come as no surprise to New Delhi. Beijing pursues policies of self-interest even at the cost of estranging international opinion. It is able to do so because it is able to get away with it. The South China Seas dispute is a clear example of the contempt with which it holds international criticism. Transfer of nuclear technology to Islamabad is another example.

New China Policy

New Delhi has consistently shown sensitivity to Beijing’s concerns and but in return, it received nothing. This is because the relationship is acutely imbalanced. India needs to re-craft a new China policy that keeps its strategic interests foremost.

To do this, New Delhi needs to recognise the strategic difference between a policy shift and childish provocative statements or actions. What works better is if we were to convey to Beijing that it is in their strategic interest to have a reliable and stable India as a potential partner rather than a fragile and unpredictable Islamabad.

This can be achieved only if India emerges as a serious economic player and attracts global FDIs and international capital. This would directly impact the GDP and employability. India needs to become the economic counter pivot in Asia to be in a position to renegotiate its relations with Beijing. Till then, Islamabad will call the shots through Beijing.

(The author is a former Indian diplomat and may be reached at