NEW DELHI: Pakistan’s National Security Advisor Sartaj Aziz is scheduled to arrive here for talks on August 23-24 with his Indian counterpart Ajit Doval amidst tensions and high decibel rhetoric on Terrorism and Kashmir. Indian officials have told a section of the media that the Pakistan delegation can expect a “surprise” and while the qualifying ‘good’ or ‘bad’ term has been omitted, tensions between the two sides seem to point towards the latter.

The talks do not seem to be destined to move forward at this stage, with a hardening of position evident not just in recent statements from both governments, but also in the arrest, followed by the release of the Kashmir separatist leaders who have been invited by Aziz for a meeting at the Pakistan High Commission. The message in the arrest and subsequent release of the Hurriyat leaders as well as JKLF’s Yasin Malik was read as a warning ‘watch out’ from the government. This provoked former chief minister Omar Abdullah to tweet against Mufti Mohammad Sayeed who has remained silent on the central government’s decision.

The Citizen has identified at least five reasons why the talks are destined to either fail, or at best endorse the status quo of non-movement that have not been addressed by either government, even though the talks are to begin on Monday August 24.

1. Kashmir: there is clearly no meeting point here. The BJP led government has in fact moved backwards to challenge even the special status under Article 370 for Jammu and Kashmir. It has not clarified whether it accepts the eight issues that were agreed upon by India and Pakistan as the basis for the composite dialogue that has been suspended now. In this Kashmir was identified as one of the issues for discussion and subsequently, through the established channels of the dialogue, the two sides were able to bring in some path-breaking confidence building measures such as opening the travel and trade route between the two Kashmirs. A concrete indication of the hardline was the decision by New Delhi to abruptly cancel the foreign secretary level talks between the two countries, after the Pakistan High Commissioner invited the Hurriyat leaders for a meeting. Pakistan at that time claimed that it was not forewarned, and through the invitation was merely following a practice allowed by all previous Indian governments.

Pakistan has subsequently increased the decibels on Kashmir although during the better days of the composite dialogue the tones had been lowered to a whisper, if at all. NSA Aziz has now issued an invitation again to the Hurriyat leaders. New Delhi responded by arresting and then releasing them in what is seen as a message. It is not clear at this stage whether they will be allowed to meet Aziz in Delhi. The change in strategy now is to go ahead with the dialogue, and if required detain the Hurriyat leaders and prevent them from meeting the Pakistan NSA. There has been no movement prior to the NSA talks to suggest a give, by any side, on this issue with the hardline approach of the Pakistan military and the Indian government expected to be reiterated by Aziz and Doval when they meet on Monday.

2. Terrorism: Again a hardening of position with New Delhi making it clear, over and over again, that it will not relent on this issue. Reports in the media based on briefings by officials suggest the preparation of detailed dossiers as the Indian government prepares to use the meeting to forcefully drive home its concerns on this issue. Pakistan, according to recent reports in its media, has decided to hunker down and not be apologetic about what it has continued to claim is not homegrown terrorism. The Pakistan Army has prevailed on the civilian administration to ensure that there is no acceptance of New Delhi’s claims, and an opening is given for talks on this issue only if the environment on Monday seems conducive. However, Aziz who is a seasoned diplomat and been a supporter of regional peace has been curtailed by the military that is calling the shots on this major issue again. At a meeting convened by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and attended by the Army chief as well as the ISI top brass, it was agreed that Aziz would adopt an aggressive position on the issue of terrorism, raise the release of the Samjhauta express mastermind, and not kow tow to Indian pressure. However, on bilateral issues of Siachen, Sir Creek the meeting decided on a reciprocal ‘give and take’ approach,

Hence it does seem that the NSA’s will repeat what the two governments have been saying on the issue for the past year, with no formula visible as yet to facilitate possible movement forward.

3. Bihar elections: Pakistan continues to play a role in current political strategy for consolidating vote banks. The Janata Dal(U) has been very critical of the Bharatiya Janata Party for its effort to polarise the electorate along religious lines ahead of the Assembly elections. Bihar is recognised as a crucial election for both the BJP and the Janata Dal(U) with both campaigning hard in the state. Pakistan and terrorism is thus a key campaign point for the BJP in the polls. Hence it is unlikely that the BJP will dilute its impact by re-starting talks with Pakistan on the eve of the Bihar polls. Instead it is more likely to use the talks to talk ‘terror’ and thereby intensify its campaign of being a strong government in Bihar.

4. Hardline postures: Usually before talks where India and Pakistan want to make a breakthrough, the two work to create an atmosphere conducive for this. The rhetoric drops by several decibels and in fact, is replaced by either silence or statements that open the door albeit just a crack. This is usually accompanied by frenetic back stage activity. This time the two sides are going in for the dialogue with all guns firing, even literally at the Line of Control. Prime Minister Narendra Modi just raised the issue of Pakistan and terrorism during a visit to the UAE. Both sides have summoned each others envoys on the LoC firing. There has not been a single statement, or even a stray remark from either New Delhi or Islamabad giving the other an opening. It has been hardline all the way, with officials in Pakistan clear that there will be no give on terrorism, and officials in India speaking about the ‘surprise’ that, in the current context, does not sound very promising for sustained dialogue.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi also remains under pressure from his own constituency that has been against talks with Pakistan, with the more hardline elements advocating the ‘teach them a lesson’ approach. Interestingly in an interview to a television channel former Minister Yashwant Sinha, a BJP leader from Bihar, has urged the government not to pursue the talks and severe diplomatic links as “talks and terror” do not mix. Incidentally,Sinha has been one of the more moderate leaders of the BJP.

5. Political will: And this is the one ‘if.’ At the end of it, this is where the ball will come and rest. Going by all the above signals there seems to be little political will in New Delhi to start a meaningful dialogue by not pushing points forcefully but using the gentler medium of diplomacy as was done in the past, and to a great extent under former BJP Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee as well. Pakistan, under siege really given the attack on it from within and without, has been keen on talks but has not been able to get even a finger shake from New Delhi at this point in time. As a result the military and the ISI have been strengthened in their anti-India positioning.

The political will is of course, the final decisive factor one way or the other. The two sides have not even determined an agenda for the talks, which translated in traditional diplomatic parlance would mean that even the meetings needed to finalise this did not take place. But given the dramatic twists and turns of the India-Pakistan trajectory this could also mean a sudden green signal to move ahead, with the political will overcoming all the stated hurdles to open the door for dialogue wide open.

Wishful thinking? But of course.