India, Pak talk again, but can they have a dialogue?

That’s what Islamabad believed — or at least publicly maintained till Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had a sundown stroll with his Pakistani counterpart Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani at the Saarc village in Bhutan’s picturesque capital Thimphu last week.

And after the formal meeting between the two leaders the next day, Pakistan too seemed to have changed its stance on the format of its future dialogue with India. “What’s in the nomenclature? It is not important; what are important are the issues,” said Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi.

He just echoed what Indian foreign secretary Nirupama Rao said just after the Singh-Gilani meet: “We don’t have to be stuck with nomenclatures. This does the relationship no good.”

That ice-breaking meeting signalling progress in efforts to end the post 26/11 frost in bilateral relation, Indian diplomats are happy as they could make their Pakistani counterparts understand that insisting on resumption of the Composite Dialogue would only mean continuing with the impasse.

As the two prime ministers asked their foreign ministers and foreign secretaries to discuss the modalities of restoring trust and confidence in ties, the focus is now on the future course of engagement and the format of the bilateral parleys.

Rao said the two PMs had agreed to “assess the current state of affairs and then to start afresh on the way forward” and that the focus was “on charting a course forward” so that the searchlight was “on the future and not on the past”.

What she left unsaid was that the Composite Dialogue was now just yet another chapter in the history of the troubled relations between New Delhi and Islamabad.

Eight issues

India and Pakistan started the Composite Dialogue in February 2004 to discuss eight issues, including Kashmir, Sir Creek and Siachen. The two countries had completed four rounds of talks and the fifth round had commenced in July 2008. In fact, Qureshi and India’s then external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee had reviewed the progress made in the fifth round during a meeting in Delhi on Nov 26, 2008 — just a few hours before Ajmal Kasab and nine other operatives of Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba had launched the attacks in Mumbai. While some meetings had already taken place, some more had been scheduled for January and February 2009.

But after Kasab and his gang killed 166 persons and wounded over 300 others in the 62-hour carnage in Mumbai, New Delhi had suspended the Composite Dialogue and launched a diplomatic offensive against Pakistan.

Despite insisting on resumption of Composite Dialogue, Pakistan eventually realised that even if the stalled process was resumed, it could hardly address the issues like Kashmir and more importantly the water-sharing dispute — something that Islamabad has propped up over the past few months, ostensibly to open yet another front in its perennial rhetorical war with New Delhi.

Singh is believed to have told Gilani that India is ready to discuss with Pakistan all issues relevant to bilateral relations. The new template that would replace the Composite Dialogue is likely to take shape over the next few weeks.

But, from the Indian perspective, a real dialogue is possible only when Pakistan fast-tracks the trial of the seven LeT men in connection with the terrorist attacks in Mumbai and acts against the terror mastermind Jamat-ud-Dawah chief Hafiz Sayeed.

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