What you think of talks with Pakistan depends on what you think ails Pakistan.
Ten years ago, I would argue, not too many Indians would say there is no point in talking with Pakistan. They would be more concerned that India mustn’t give away the house just to get peace on the streets.
Today a lot more urban educated say exactly that. “I am not against talking. What’s wrong with talking? But what is the point of talking with Pakistan?” And on a bad scalp day even I ask myself that question. Even more interesting: US officials sometimes ask their Indian counterparts the same – and then hastily add that, harrumph, of course, Washington’s view is that dialogue is always good.
The instinctive response is to say talk is cheap, so spend it. At worst the two sides will disagree, perhaps spit in each other’s lunch. However, let me play devil’s advocate and say the following. 1) Talking does not prevent terrorist attacks on India – they happen whether the two jaw-jaw or don’t. 2) There is an argument for saying useless talks delegitimizes diplomacy. So when you actually do come up with a solution, the public is too jaundiced to take it seriously.
Ultimately, the main argument for not talking with Pakistan is that it’s a failed state. If you believe it’s a lost cause, then talks are futile. If you believe otherwise, then talks makes sense.
Here’s why. Assume, India concedes everything to Pakitan. We give Pakistan the Valley of Kashmir, every Indian soldier and aid worker in Afghanistan shipped home, it also withdraws its troops from the border and, for good measure, says Islamabad can take home any five Bollywood starlets it chooses. The traditional argument was that this would end the great India-Pakistan divide.
Today there is a strong case for saying it wouldn’t make the slightest bit of difference. This argument goes something like this: Pakistani nationalism has been straying down a path of exclusivism, non-democracy and increasing radicalism.
A small establishment, part-military and part-feudal, have come to dominate the system. To explain why they control so many resources – ranging from farm land to river waters, from industry to politics, and ensuring genuine democracy never takes root in Pakistan – this establishment demonises India.
Believe this and then it’s clear why it’s irrelevant what India concedes or does not concede in talks. Maintaining a hostile relationship is too important to this Praetorian establishment as a whole.
In other words, the roots of conflict in South Asia lie not in an old-fashioned territorial dispute but in the dysfunctionality of Pakistani nationalism itself. Not unheard of: the so-called Fischer school made this argument to explain the rise of militarism in Wilhelmine Gemany.
What do I think? I think Pakistan is between these two states of being. It isn’t ready to roll over and play Taliban, but it is unlikely to be secular democracy a decade or two from now. If talking, though not surrendering, to Pakistan helps that country take a slightly less violent fork in the road then it’s worth it. There are too many known unknowns and unknown unknowns to be able to judge what will or will not work. But the cost-benefit remains moderately in favour of talking.