What finally matters is not the truth of Kulbhushan Yadav or the authenticity of his confessional video; it is the timing of its release, which has dealt a body blow to the bonhomie generated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Christmas visit to Lahore.
By New Year’s day, the operation to attack Pathankot airbase had begun; within two weeks of that, the Foreign Secretary-level composite dialogue was put off; and events that followed haven’t done much to stem the inexorable slide to a stop. The one possible game changer, the proposed meeting between the Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan in Washington this week, was felled by Sunday’s Easter bombing in Lahore, which forced Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to cancel his trip.
Better security relationship
While the diplomatic process floundered over the past few months, the security relationship between India and Pakistan seemed to fare better. After National Security Advisers (NSA) Ajit Doval and retired Lieutenant General Naseer Khan Janjua met in Bangkok in December 2015, where they famously broke the ice over a pack of cigarettes, they have been in regular touch over the telephone. The results have been unprecedented. Even as security forces finished battling Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorists in Pathankot, the NSAs spoke. Mr. Doval asked for prompt action against the JeM, and Mr. Janjua reportedly swore to crush the group. While the Pakistan government has taken action against the JeM before, seldom has it offered to act so quickly, reporting that JeM offices were raided and some unidentified leaders taken into custody soon after.
Next came the news that the Pakistan government was filing an FIR in the case, based on Mr. Doval’s information, and sending a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) to India to gather evidence in order to prosecute the culprits. While it never confirmed this directly to the Ministry of External Affairs, news that Masood Azhar was in ‘protective custody’ was positive. And then came the even more startling news that Mr. Janjua had passed on information about 10 suspected terrorists entering India to carry out attacks on Mahashivaratri, as a result of which some officials even claimed three of them were killed. This now denoted a whole different order of cooperation between the NSAs. That camaraderie finally bore fruit when, after some political jostling and a few differences within the Indian Cabinet, the five-member JIT/Special Investigation Team from Pakistan landed in India to carry out its investigations in Pathankot and Amritsar on March 27.
On the Indian side, the government has been criticised for extending its hand too far to ensure the visit happens. First, there was criticism that it didn’t call off the Foreign Secretary talks altogether. Next was that despite its statements that there will be zero tolerance on terror, it made no comment after the Pampore attack by suspected Lashkar-e-Taiba militants. Third, serving military officers from the ISI and military intelligence were allowed access to the Pathankot airbase, a completely unique precedent worldwide. Eventually, these can all be chalked up to good communication both at the prime ministerial and NSA levels. Even the date of arrival for the SIT, rushed through despite the fact that they had not sent the requisite letter rogatory, seemed timed before the Prime Ministers’ travel to the U.S.
It is then extremely puzzling that the Pakistani establishment should choose exactly the same time to release details of the arrest and confession by the former naval officer accused of spying and funding Baloch groups, who claims to report to Mr. Doval and the Research and Analysis Wing chief.
While Mr. Yadav’s confessional statement isn’t quite convincing, the circumstances around his appearance in Pakistan certainly need investigation by India. What is clear is that the storm couldn’t have come at a worse time for India-Pakistan relations, hinged as they are on the security relationship alone. The question that arises is, if the NSAs had indeed built a strong relationship, with a commitment not to go public before they had spoken to each other, why did this not apply to the spy case? What makes it more worrying is that Pakistan has chosen to play up the arrest domestically, with a minister and Inter Services Public Relations chief at the press conference, and also internationally, with the Army chief attempting to bring up the issue with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The Pakistani allegation that Mr. Yadav was arrested in Chaman along the Afghan border and that he was working on a plot to target Chinese hotels in Gwadar adds to the international implications of those accusations.
Taking talks forward
It is in order for the government to consider its next steps very carefully, with firm grounding rather than the flair and fireworks of Prime Minister Modi’s Lahore stopover. It may also be necessary to rethink the primacy of NSA-to-NSA engagement after the spy case, and giving back the reins of the dialogue to diplomats. Prime Minister Modi and his government could benefit from a more structured approach to dialogue, which doesn’t have to depend on domestic debate each time, and resolve to meet, say, once a month to take talks on terror forward. In any case, with the Prime Minister still expected to travel to Islamabad in November for the SAARC summit, several official meetings where an Indian-Pakistan concord is necessary are unavoidable over the next few months.
To its credit, the government has made it clear that it intends to keep the lines of engagement open, even if it is only to avoid the constant international focus on India-Pakistan that India wishes to avoid. “We have found that when we stop talking to Pakistan, others we talk to talk to us about talking to Pakistan,” a senior government official admitted to journalists recently. It is time then to wrest back control of the India-Pakistan engagement, and make the dialogue about issues that India most wants to talk about.
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