Why Indo-Pak Talks Fail Again and Again

India and Pakistan cancelled a high profile National Security Adviser meet this last weekend, much to the disappointment of many who were expecting to finally see a thaw in bilateral relations. The run-up to the cancellation was filled with much acrimony, some of which has in fact been unseen since hostilities following 26/11. Officials say that there have been as many as 52 violations of the border ceasefire so far this month. This comes at the back of repeated cross-border infiltration of terrorists into India and terror attacks in Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir.

But none of this is unprecedented. Talks between India and Pakistan have broken down in the past, and promising efforts to restart dialogue have often been lost in the noise of rhetoric. Why do India and Pakistan find it near impossible to sit across the table and talk it out?

Richard Haass, president of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, recently tweeted that the US and the USSR “had more of a relationship at Cold War height” than India and Pakistan do now. Haass is right. Yes, the Cuban missile crisis took the world far closer to Armageddon than any India-Pakistan war yet, but the two Cold War foes still found time and space to sign significant arms-control treaties, which by and large held. India and Pakistan, on the other hand, have had enormous trouble to stick to even agreed mechanisms for dialogue, let alone sign a treaty. Many believe that lack of trust is the culprit, but as Russian analyst Vladimir Radyuhin pointed out back in 2012, “there was no trust between the Soviet Union and the US when they began nuclear arms talks in the early 1970s” either. What India and Pakistan lack in terms of trust, they could easily make up for in terms of political will.

It would be wrong to fault the leaders of the two countries for lack of political will as well. Modi and Sharif have already met each other thrice since the former took office last year – once even at Modi’s swearing-in ceremony. The two Prime Ministers have exchanged courtesies with each other at every given opportunity, neither making hostile comments about the other’s country. This, in fact, is in stark contrast to the bitter relationship that most American and Soviet heads of state shared with each other.

But this isn’t the Cold War, and Pakistan is certainly not the Soviet Union. Soviet leaders often exercised total and absolute power and authority over all institutions in their country. They didn’t have difficult political opponents or domestic rivals who would force them to retract on international commitments. When Alexei Kosygin began the historic Strategic Arms Limitation Talks with President Johnson in 1969, his government didn’t have to justify it to a domestic constituency, nor was he in danger of having to go back on his word.

Pakistan’s internal politics, on the other hand, has always been steeped in complex power struggles between civilian governments and the military establishment. The hostile atmosphere that has surrounded Pakistan since its birth has made the army an indispensable political force. Added to that is the repeated failures of democratic governments. In 1993, Sharif himself (then Prime Minister for the first time) had to forcibly resign after a bitter spat with the then President Ghulam Ishaq Khan. The Army Chief negotiated a settlement with Sharif which later saw the President leave office as well. Then, in 1999, Sharif was forced out of office a second time, this time as a result of a bloodless military coup which brought the Army General Pervez Musharraf to power. When Sharif became Prime Minister for the third time in 2013, it was in fact the first transfer of power between two civilian governments in Pakistan’s 66-year-long independent history.

If the civilian establishment in Pakistan is often junior to the military in terms of exercised power, the inequality is only exacerbated on India-related policy. It wasn’t a coincidence, for instance, that the 1999 coup came just months after India and Pakistan signed the historic Lahore Declaration. Even last week, Sharif had to hold extensive discussions with the Army Chief before preparing his agenda for the NSA talks in New Delhi.

The relative lack of independence and authority of the civilian government in Pakistan makes it nearly impossible for the Prime Minister or his representatives to engage in breakthrough talks with India or make significant promises to their counterparts in New Delhi. For India and Pakistan to sign a historic peace declaration and make it hold, Pakistan’s civilian establishment must wield the sort of political capital which made it possible for Brezhnev and others to conclude arms treaties with the United States. For as long as Pakistani politics remains the same, talking can only go so far.

(c) 2015, The Huffington Post