This has largely been because the interlocutors battle on two fronts — across the negotiating table and in public courts back home. Given the mindsets nurtured over decades, the approach has been of unwavering suspicion

The history of India-Pakistan relations is one of hope triumphed by trepidation, of lack of trust and intransigence that have made leaderships stop short of turning a new leaf. That’s largely because the interlocutors battle on two fronts — across the negotiating table and in public courts back home. Given the mindsets nurtured over decades, the approach has been of unwavering suspicion. Even when one side dealt straight, the other saw in it a sleight of hand.

So when the two armies announced on February 25 the restoration of the November 2003 ceasefire handed down from the Atal Bihari Vajpayee era, the predominant reaction was of doubt and disbelief. Even the most hardened among the optimists found incredulous the possibility of a substantive dialogue process that hasn’t been resurrected from the ruins of the 2008 terror attack on Mumbai.

The assault orchestrated by gunmen trained and controlled by Pakistan has continued to haunt bilateral ties; the intermittent tactical engagements thwarted by other cross-border misadventures from Pathankot to Pulwama. The wounds thus inflicted are open and festering. The sceptics were proved right when the Imran Khan regime put on hold a proposal to import sugar and cotton from India. The move proved abortive as it signified a policy shift away from Islamabad’s stated position of “no engagement” with India till it undid the August 5, 2019 revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status.

Pakistan’s “U-Turn On The U-Turn”

There are conflicting narratives in Pakistan of the authors and cancellers of the trade initiative. For instance, noted journalist Najam Sethi refused to believe the federal cabinet’s economic coordination committee (ECC) led by finance minister Hammad Azhar could have moved without the PM’s nod. His prognosis: Khan either played off his “own bat” or misread what the “higher” authorities (read the army) desired. In his view, the PM backed down and Hammad became (the) scapegoat. To Sethi, that explained the U-turn on a U-turn (from the stand against talks with India till it restored the changed status of J&K).

“Now the PM says nothing doing until Article 370 is restored. Since that is not going to happen, wait for another U-turn sooner or later,” tweeted the journalist who once served as Punjab’s caretaker chief minister.

But his version leaves unexplained as to how could there be a communication gap on such a vital matter between Rawalpindi and the civilian government it patronises. The question is relevant also because it was General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the incumbent army chief, who first made out a detailed case for Pakistan and India to “bury the past and move forward”. The general didn’t make an off-the-cuff remark. He made the point in his March 18 policy-laying address at the Islamabad Security Dialogue: “Stable India-Pakistan relation is a key to unlock the untapped potential of South and Central Asia by ensuring connectivity between East and West Asia....Our mature behaviour in the crisis situation with India manifested our desire to change the narrative of geo-political contestation into geo-economic integration.”

The formulation bore a discernible newness. It read like a road map, predicated nevertheless on the “peaceful resolution” of the Kashmir dispute, without which “the process of sub-continental rapprochement would remain susceptible to derailment...”

From the Pakistani perspective, limited imports from India made good business and economic sense. The idea ran into a wall in the absence of public diplomacy to contextualise the expedient push with domestic sugar scarcity and a failed cotton crop that has hit the apparel industry. It turned into a mess because the proposal flew in the face of Bajwa’s and Khan’s appeals to New Delhi to create a conducive (the general’s word) and enabling (the PM’s lexicon) environment in Kashmir for the resumption of a constructive-result oriented dialogue.

No matter who put the cart before the horse, the civilian regime or the army or both, Sethi’s comment before the ECC’s proposal got junked by the Cabinet, was a neat summing up of the Pakistani flip-flop. He tweeted: “After India killed Article 370, we said it didn’t matter since we hadn’t accepted it in the first place. Then we protested and banned all trade and contacts until it (Kashmir’s special status) was restored. Now we are ready to “normalise” without restoration of Article 370. Great foreign policy strategy (sic)”.

The veteran journalist wasn’t alone in flagging what came to be seen as a Pakistani climbdown. There were questions aplenty across the political spectrum and the media on the advisability of Pakistan reverting to “business as usual” without a cogent India revert on its calls for a conducive/enabling environment in Kashmir. Quite obviously, the civil-military establishment had no memory of the incremental peace approach that preceded and followed the 2003 border truce it chose to revive with India.

Vajpayee’s Statesmanship

It was in the middle of Operation Parakaram triggered by the December 2001 terror attack on Indian Parliament, that Vajpayee made his famous April 18, 2003 “hand of friendship” speech in Srinagar. His overture caught many among his cabinet colleagues, unawares, including then external affairs minister Yashwant Sinha, who admitted as much in his book Relentless: An Autobiography.

That Vajpayee had prepared the ground before going public with the dialogue offer became evident when the armies on either side started withdrawing troops that were eyeball-to-eyeball for over a year. But border de-escalation wasn’t enough to mobilise public support for another peace bid by the leader twice betrayed — in Kargil after his historic February 1999 bus-ride to Lahore on Nawaz Sharif’s invite and during the 2001 Agra summit with General Pervez Musharraf.

Each time hopes of a dialogue rise, so do efforts at peace. It was an all-party delegation of Indian MPs to Pakistan, including those from the BJP, which the PM personally cleared, that lifted tack-two diplomacy from the conference rooms to the public domain. For the three days that their visit lasted, the Indian leaders, notably the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Lalu Yadav, captured popular Pakistani imagination like never before.

Almost overnight, talking friendship became fashionable. The climate for peace so indispensable for any dialogue to sustain was brought about by the saturation media coverage. Newspapers carried banner headlines; TV channels hosted leaders from both countries in discussions moderated by anchor-journalists from India and Pakistan.

That happened in August 2003. In November came the formal ceasefire announcement about which General Musharraf had assured the visiting MPs (at a presidential reception) that it could happen with the ‘blow” of a whistle. The backchannels were active all this while between the Indian PM’s principal secretary, Brajesh Mishra and his Pakistani counterpart, Tariq Aziz, who served the Pakistan president in the same rank.

A couple of months later came the substantive outcome of these efforts: Vajpayee and Musharraf signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on January 6, 2004 on the sidelines of the SAARC summit in Islamabad. The agreement was Vajpayee’s most significant foreign policy achievement. Its import lay in Pakistan’s commitment to not permit use of any territory under its control to support terrorism in any manner. Yashwant Sinha, who saw it happening, explained: “(In the joint press statement), India’s readiness to resume the dialogue process...was made conditional on Pakistan’s promise to not allow territory under its control...for violence and terrorism against India. Implicit in it was the admission on Pakistan’s part that the territory under its control was indeed being used for such violence and terrorism. The theory that terror and talks could not go together flows out of this commitment.”

To build on the climate supportive of talks, Vajpayee subsequently green signalled the Indian cricket team’s tour of Pakistan for what came to be known as the friendship series. In a call they made on him before departure, he asked the players to “not only win the matches in Pakistan but also the hearts of the people there...”

The 2004 general elections were scheduled within weeks of the March-April cricket tour. Looking back, Vajpayee’s decision to delink relations with Pakistan from domestic political exigencies comes across as statesmanship at its prime. The cricketers returned victorious, winning hearts and the matches they played. But the BJP veteran lost the general elections for reasons other than reaching out to Pakistan.

The foreign policy template he set cannot but be extolled for its broader objective of subcontinental reconciliation. He was the man who risked waging peace against the eventuality of war. On both sides of Wagah, Vajpayee statecraft and its outcome remain relevant. That is, if the quest for peace and economic prosperity is mutual and seriously strategic — not a one-off tactic. His initial effort set the table for discussing a paradigm shift — from the new borders objective to a no borders approach — to crack the Kashmir imbroglio.

Returning To The Kashmir Formula

The discussions in the Manmohan Singh decade spanned three Pakistani dispensations: Musharraf, Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif. Mumbai happened when Zardari offered a nuclear doctrine of no first use to match India’s. The peace formula had, at its core, confidence building measures (CBMs) and jointly run overarching institutions that would give Kashmiris on both sides a way of life to which they get used to.

As the late Pranab Mukherjee once told this writer in a private chat: “That’s the best way forward as the Kashmir issue cannot ever be settled vide a bilateral pact or treaty...”

The interlocutor’s baton after Brajesh Mishra was held by Satinder Lambah, the former Indian High Commissioner to Islamabad. He said the backchannel agreement wasn’t outdated. It remained relevant, given its focus on the future of the two countries in a regime-agnostic way.

Arguing similarly in a New York Times piece in March 2019, Pakistan’s well regarded foreign policy expert, Ahmed Rashid also felt the “way forward” for the two sides was in going back to what was deliberated from 2005-2014.

The counsel makes sense as governments are a continuum.