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India-Pakistan Talks: Negotiating The Future Means Letting Go Of Past Strategies

29/12/2015 8:15 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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India’s Border Security Force (BSF) soldiers patrol near the India-Pakistan international border fencing at Garkhal, about 35 kilometers (22 miles) west of Jammu, India, Monday, Sept. 16, 2013. Pakistani troops fired at Indian positions along the Line of Control in the Poonch district of Jammu and Kashmir drawing retaliation from Indian troops Sunday, according to local reports. (AP Photo/Channi Anand)

The recent announcement that India and Pakistan would resume substantive engagement came as a welcome surprise, especially because it was not accompanied by the baggage of fanfare, which has become the hallmark of the ritualistic "talk about talks". The announcement was done quietly and outside the glare of both the media and the public.

The two Foreign Secretaries will meet in January to chalk out a calendar of meetings. Both Prime Ministers are aware that if the talks break down, the damage, in public perception, would be minimal, as India-Pakistan talks are known to regularly fail. In such an eventuality, the official spokespersons are likely to take recourse to the usual blame game.

The substantive talks need to be done behind closed doors and outside the media glare.

At the same time, both Prime Ministers are also acutely aware that should the negotiations conclude successfully, they would be guaranteed a place in history. In the eyes of the international community and in their respective domestic constituencies, it would be seen as an extraordinary achievement that could transform the region. For the beleaguered PM Sharif, this would be a feather in his cap at a deeply troubling time in Pakistan. For PM Modi, this would reflect statesmanship of exceptional calibre. Both, consequently, face a win-win situation. A unique opportunity exists to approach the talks with an open mind.

For a successful outcome this time around, negotiating strategies need to be reimagined.

1. Approaching negotiations in good faith

Negotiations assume a conflict. How negotiations are approached determines the positions we take. If we approach negotiations in bad faith, the negotiations will fail even before they are begun. On the other hand, if talks are entered into in good faith, irrespective of the pressures that might have brought the negotiators to the table, the negotiation would assume an entirely different complexion.

2. A need for quiet diplomacy

The substantive talks need to be done behind closed doors and outside the media glare. There are many, on both sides of the border, who oppose normalising bilateral relations. They have fixed mindsets, and will aim to disrupt the talks and vitiate the atmosphere. This is the time for quiet diplomacy.

3. Recognising the importance of back channel communications

It is reasonable to assume that several rounds of negotiations will take place and could involve multiple players from both sides, including secret emissaries and Track 2 efforts. There are, furthermore, many in both countries who enjoy considerable respect and leverage within their country and across the border. Networking and hierarchy are part of the South Asian DNA. It is important, therefore, to reach out to everyone who can contribute to the dialogue process in a positive manner and to co-opt them into the process, while ensuring that the command and control lies unambiguously with the Prime Minister (in the case of India).

At the very outset... atmospherics need to be put in place by first establishing good will and confidence.

The importance of back channel communications cannot be over-emphasised. It bears recalling that even when the British army was fighting the IRA, MI5 had opened covert communications with the IRA. This was initially done to get advance information on possible terror strikes, so as to mount counter-insurgency operations. Over time, MI5 managed to develop strong communication channels with the IRA rank and file, including with Martin McGuinness, who was the IRA chief of staff. This came in handy when talks were formally initiated by the government with the IRA.

4. Taking up issues in the right sequence

While both sides are clear in terms of the irritants in the relationship, sequencing the issues will be important. A clutter plagues both nations, such as Kashmir, terrorism, water sharing, Afghanistan, safe havens, etc. For the negotiators, the most important decision would not be which issues are on the table but the sequence in which these are taken up.

Negotiations are a step-by- step process. You do not ask for every item on the menu while ordering your meal. The attitude with which one approaches the negotiations would, therefore, determine the sequencing. Taking up the most contentious issue first would run the risk of the talks breaking down. The first step needs to be the establishment of rapport and the gradual erosion of the trust deficit. There needs to be, in other words, visible demonstration of good faith.

At the very outset, therefore, atmospherics need to be put in place by first establishing good will and confidence. Considerable mistrust and antagonism would, understandably, hang like thick smog over the negotiating table. As Professor Alison Brooks, who teaches negotiation at Harvard Business School, observes:

"In negotiations that are less transactional and involve parties in long-term relationships, understanding the role of emotions is even more important than it is in transactional deal making."

South Asians tend to be emotionally high-strung and this will, most certainly, be on display. The atmosphere is likely to be highly charged and it might appear as if a tsunami was in progress. Both sides need to recognise that the ability to assuage emotions without surrendering core interests is what will enable the negotiations to move forward. While voices will be raised and delegation members might even dramatically storm out, the leaders of the two delegations need to be acutely sensitive in ensuring that emotions do not go out of control.

This will need to be a deal-making negotiation. Consequently, direct confrontation cannot be the preferred strategy...

This will need to be a deal-making negotiation. Consequently, direct confrontation cannot be the preferred strategy as it would have damaging consequences and could even result in the talks breaking down. How one communicates lies at the heart of communication because negotiation is essentially interpersonal.

5. Patience and vigilance are key

The great risk associated with bilateral negotiations relate to stability, both political and economic. The Indian delegation must be conscious of the fact that Pakistan faces deep political instability and consequent economic insecurity. There might be temptation on the part of the Indian delegation to hasten the pace of negotiations and wrap-up as much as possible for fear that a change in government would require starting de novo. This would be ill-advised, since a new government in Islamabad could very well renege on commitments made by its predecessor. Seasoned negotiators are patience and vigilant.

6. Deciding the right "price" for both sides

No one would normally participate in a negotiation with expectations of failure. Neither side expects a zero-sum game outcome or even a win-win because this, in a very definitional sense, is a theoretical and unrealistic proposition. Balancing success where both sides have an equal take-away is desirable but rarely achievable. A successful negotiation is one where neither side feels it has lost face or that the deal is unfair. Sustainable outcomes of deal-making negotiations are predicated on the deal being perceived as honourable by both parties.

[I]f the end objective is lasting peace and a new chapter in bilateral relations, the Lakshman rekha might even need to be redrawn.

What both sides will confront is the price-line. What, in other words, is the price they would be required to pay in comparison with what they are willing to pay? Price is a matter of comfort zone. Every negotiator recognises that there is a Lakshman Rekha that cannot be crossed. Any pushing beyond that point is counterproductive.

Negotiators often come with preconceived notions and end objectives. They are keen to concede as little as possible, while maximising their own gains. India-Pakistan talks, however, assume an entirely different complexion. The two Prime Ministers have agreed to enter into dialogue to ascertain whether seven decades of acrimony that has seen considerable grief on both sides could be transcended for the betterment of over 1.5 billion people. This means that both sides will need to reimagine their strategic objectives and negotiating mandates.

Concessions will, most certainly, need to be made by both sides, if the talks are to be meaningful and the negotiated peace sustainable. It is not inconceivable that some of these concessions would be seen as giving more than getting. However, if the end objective is lasting peace and a new chapter in bilateral relations, the Lakshman rekha might even need to be redrawn. Both sides need to be open to this.

As Jagat Mehta, a former Indian foreign secretary, [said], "We know the past. Do we need to live in it?" That should possibly be the principle negotiating brief.

Beyond the negotiations

Finally, negotiations are only part of the process. What has been negotiated needs to be acceptable to and supported by domestic constituencies. This is not easy and both governments are cognizant of this. Selling peace is as complex an assignment as making peace.

Everything rests on political will, especially in the face of the many naysayers in both countries. As Jagat Mehta, a former Indian foreign secretary, so eloquently reminded us, "We know the past. Do we need to live in it?" That should possibly be the principle negotiating brief.

[Amit Dasgupta, a former diplomat, currently heads the Mumbai campus of the SP Jain School of Global Management]

Amit Dasgupta, a former diplomat, currently heads the Mumbai campus of the SP Jain School of Global Management.

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