The Mohali exchange did not take place in a policy vacuum – Sherry Rehman

An interview with Sherry Rehman who visited India with Pakistan’s Prime Minister to enjoy cricket and build bridges with India.

It was the first major interaction at this level since the Mumbai terror attacks. How was the reception? What did the Pakistani delegates and their Indian hosts talk about? What was the body language like?

Sherry Rehman: As encounters between India and Pakistan go, this was certainly important, if only for the reason that it broke some serious ice, hitched as it was to a major public event. It was a landmark interaction after the Mumbai explosion had severely damaged bilateral relations, and it represented a clear investment in statesmanship on both sides. Pakistan and India have often relied on sideline moments at multilateral events to keep some interaction going, but this was obviously much bigger than that as ‘event diplomacy’ goes, because it involved no other players, as well as the fact that it worked with larger numbers of formal interlocutors.
The public reception was strong. Even in whole swathes of the city, where traffic was blocked for security reasons while we passed through on way to the stadium and back, we saw people both curious and warm, waving at us, welcoming us. There were no sullen faces or unfriendly behaviour. At the official level, there were less grand gestures of effusion as always, but a marked attempt at sustained cordiality and personalisation of relations at multiple levels during the two sides. This is always important, and often the most important element in building long-term ties. Playing host for any South Asian is serious business, and the Indian officials took to their roles with greater alacrity than seen lately, so the atmospherics, as they say, were quite good.
Q: How was the atmosphere in the stadium? What sort of impact, if any, does the result of the game have on the body language or the negotiation dynamics?

SR: The atmosphere in the larger perimeter of the stadium was naturally charged with high voltage emotions. This was to be expected. Any cricket match between India and Pakistan takes on all sorts of meanings of the general public, and for spectators in the live arena more than others. But there were no hostilities reported or seen, even when some rival chanting between two enthusiastic groups in the stalls took on fairly challenging overtones. The subtext of competing nationalisms never became dangerous or even overtly hostile; in fact, whenever temperatures rose a little high, a rational vanguard in both groups was often seen calming things down, reminding everyone that what we were contesting was only a game, and nothing more. The mob mentality that often overtakes such high-stakes games never ruled in Mohali. The atmosphere in the PM’s enclosure, where both delegations were seated for the match, was formal only for the first few hours. People loosened up, mingled at the back, and joined each other in swapping bilateral anxieties and expectations, both about the state of relations between the two states as well as the possible outcome of the game. The cordiality and informality that flowed out from the dynamics of being jointly vested in a game definitely led to a much higher level of warmth in negotiations than is normally the case between India and Pakistan.

Q: Talks between India and Pakistan have periodically picked up and stalled. What can we do that we haven’t done in the past to ensure continuous and meaningful dialogue?

SR: I think India and Pakistan face two key challenges in their dialogue dynamics. One is clearly the problem of raised public expectations with little outcome in each encounter. The other is keeping conflict down and dialogue going during a crisis. It is almost impossible to insulate the bilateral context from episodes of crisis, for the simple reason that in many situations the two states may not be in control of elements that seek to derail dialogue. Keeping temperatures down, particularly during a crisis, is precisely what we need to focus on for the future, especially by raising the responsibility bar for the media. In both countries, we see public opinion swung about like an irresponsible bat at times of grave crisis. Instead of infusing rationality to the Indo-Pak conflict narrative, we see celebrity anchors turn their mikes into pulpits, breathing sulphur into the discourse between two nuclear states, forgetting that in the chase for easy ratings they are actually taking public opinion into a danger zone where politicians will be pressured to respond with matching slogans, all of which causes us to cross diplomatic red lines that we really should not.
Apart from the media, the political class should also attempt to lead from the front in both countries, as they have in the Mohali case. If we have more such encounters with regularity, then building secretary-level talks at multiple levels would be easier done as a routine, low-hype activity. In short, we need to invest more detail and routine into our relations rather than drama and passion. We have infused enough of the latter in this bilateral dynamic for more than a century. To make dialogue sustainable, it will have to be regular, with institutional contacts at multiple levels made mandatory. It is only once dialogue is institutionalised that we will see peace in South Asia graduate from an intellectual construct to an outcome-based process with regular metrics for success.

Q: Is there anything in particular that you felt during the visit made you hopeful of a breakthrough on a certain issue?

SR: What made me hopeful at Mohali was that it was very clear that while everyone was excited about the cricket, there was an even stronger undercurrent of excitement about the reality that both sides clearly wanted to move forward. The recalcitrant party, which was India, had come a long way from saying they will not talk at all unless so many conditions are met, to this rational embrace of all items on the standard composite dialogue menu between the two countries.
I don’t think we should expect ‘breakthroughs’ in this relationship. We should seek incremental gains that stay the course of a wide-ranging and sustainable peace process. This is how we will chip away at the barriers of misunderstanding and conflict that we have erected over 60 years. There is no better history than a history made by the people of two nations together, and that is the process we should invest in accelerating.
However, the Indian state is the status quo power in the region seeking hegemony. It must therefore be the one to make the first state or official move in terms of grand gestures, but I don’t see any, especially in terms of disinvestments in military buildups. The different postures between the states and the two nations will only ease when the Pakistani state’s threat perceptions are given relief by incremental Indian demobilisations from our border. That is the stark reality, and it is this conversation that we must engage in as well if we want any depth in the reform of our strained strategic relations.
The one thing I am hopeful about is that the Mohali exchange did not take place in a policy vacuum. It is solidly anchored in a series of upcoming structured interactions between the trade, interior and foreign secretaries of both countries.

Q: The recent tit-for-tat arrests of low level High Commission officials between India and Pakistan are being seen as signals of displeasure from the establishment on either side. Can the weak Manmohan and Gilani governments make bold decisions?

Ans: I am not at all worried about the tit-for-tat arrests of junior embassy employees by both sides. These things happen, and will continue to happen with such a strong overhang of distrust between two countries, as well as the long history of knee-jerk reprisals. It is the space we make for peace both at the level of the nation, or the people, that matters, as well as easing the defence threats of the two states. Whether it is paranoia or not, we have to also address the anxieties of our two huge military establishments if we expect to make headway in terms of Kashmir or other conflicts. A great deal of ground-work has been done on CBMs like Sir Creek and Siachin. Making some movement on those would be a good idea, as well as accommodating some newer CBMs, such as resumption of mobile network roaming facilities in both countries, as well as freer flow of people between the two nations. This will go a long way in deconstructing myths that build up every time we have a crisis.

This interview appeared in The Friday Times, Pakistan on April 8, 2011

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