After the Thimpu talks between the two foreign secretaries, India and Pakistan stand at yet another beginning. As in the middle of last year, there is little indication that this time it the real thing. The earlier two beginnings, specifically Vajpayee’s reaching out of April 2003 that culminated in the Islamabad joint statement of January 2004, and Manmohan Singh’s UPA I initiatives that energized the ‘back channel’, had greater promise. This time round the little political investment in the initiatives indicates that these are but diplomatic procedures churning on.

That the Pakistani foreign minister has not been appointed yet after the reshuffle indicates reservations on the Pakistani side. The Army that calls the shots on the Kashmir front is unlikely to want any movement since Pakistan’s present position is one seeming disadvantage. It has lost its terror leverage in Kashmir, even though it has managed to change the strategy from a militant stand off to a more people-centered, intifada-like, one.

India, for its part, is best poised to ignore any pressures for concessions to Pakistan. Its defense budget having gone up three times over the past decade, it is better positioned to ensure deterrence of Pakistani provocations. In case this fails, it will be able, unlike in the aftermath of 26/11, to react militarily. The lower profile accorded to Cold Start of late, and the shift in emphasis on ‘proactive operations’, implying an ability for selective strikes, gives it little incentive to compromise.

In other words, very little on the positive side can be expected externally on the Kashmir front.

The three interlocutors appointed for progressing the political prong of strategy have promised viable recommendations. With their credibility at stake, their report can be expected to be innovative. However, in the absence of any political exertion to create the ground for accepting any far reaching suggestions it might have, there is unlikely to be any consequential follow up. Preparing the ground prior is useful not only in Kashmir but in the rest of India. That public opinion is not been conditioned means that as with other reports, this one too will be subject to India’s time-tested practice of putting off action. The Srikrishna report on Telangana is example.

With the police gearing up to take on agitations expected over the summer, the government can afford to be complacent. The Arab uprisings have little to offer in terms of tactics and inspiration for Kashmiri agitators because they have already been on this route for three years now. Admittedly, a reaching out to the people has been underway by the Army in particular. Recruiting rallies, cricket tournaments, human rights seminars, etc., are some such measures. Propping up of erstwhile Ikhwanis as a political force is being done to further restrict the space for separatists. The central government has Omar Abdullah as buffer in case a scapegoat is required. The beginning of talks with Assamese insurgents enables something to show on internal security. A government on the back-foot for charges of corruption cannot in any case open up another front in the form of ‘concessions to separatists’ for the opposition to take advantage of. Therefore internally too there is unlikely to be any movement.

What this means for Kashmir and the Kashmir question is yet another ‘dot’ year. What are implications for the future?

Both India and Pakistan await the outcome of the US exit strategy in AfPak. It is fairly clear that the Europeans are exhausted and that servicing the US fiscal deficit calls for retraction in its external wars. Pakistan would like to retain even keel till the future is here. India, for its part, would prefer the same, but is not averse to the opposite.

The latter explains the circulation of ideas on balkanization and intervention in Pakistan to save nuclear crown jewels in support of US and Israeli action. The logic presumably is that an unstable Pakistan would be inwardly looking and therefore less Kashmir obsessed. In any case, by middle of the decade with increasing power asymmetry between the two states, India would be better positioned to take on any Pakistani strategy. Yet the hope is for a stable Pakistan able to overcome its internal contradictions with external help of the US and thereby better able to go beyond Kashmir.

Given such analyses, suggesting change is to be unrealistic. At best, what can be done is to recommend better management of both the external and internal dimensions of the Kashmir issue. The government is, in any case, set on this course. It hopes to manage internal security through better policing, and, externally, the agenda of meetings is set till July.

To suggest that this approach does India’s great power ambitions and regional power status an injustice would be a wasteful exercise. But it needs be said that India is indeed being a free rider. It is doing little to bring about the change it seeks in Pakistan. A strategy needs to be envisaged and implemented to bring about the change. The argument that India does not know with whom to network or interface in Pakistan is a trite rationale.

What needs to be done?

India needs to make Pakistan an offer it cannot refuse. It needs to extend the erstwhile ‘Gujral doctrine’, of non-reciprocal opening up, to cover Pakistan also. India’s rising economic tide must be made to lift all regional boats. This implies energizing the economic prong of strategy, perhaps through the aegis, if required for massaging Pakistani sensitivities, of the SAARC. This would ensure Pakistani stability, preempt instability in the region, and bring to fore the constituencies in Pakistan that are not averse to engaging with India. It would enable Pakistan to non-militarily roll back the extremist tide.

A policy alternative is available. India’s unwillingness to countenance this can be ascribed to its inability owing to both political and policy deficiencies. Yet, it can certainly be reckoned to have arrived as a power in case it was to operationalize this policy alternative. It would be a pity were South Asia to find itself at mid-decade facing a worsening regional reality due to realist power play or confidence infirmities of today.