Backchannel contacts between Pakistan and India have met a dead end as both sides have struggled to agree on the moves that may pave the way for slow but gradual improvement in the relationship.
“Talks have been going on but have reached a point where things aren’t moving anywhere,” a source familiar with the development said.
There has been a desire from both the sides to break the impasse but the issue is how to move forward from this point onwards, the source explained.
What has slowed down the process was the political uncertainty in Pakistan. There was a glimmer of hope for a possible thaw in the relationship following the change of government in Pakistan in April. What spurred the optimism was that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was one of the first leaders to congratulate Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif.
The sources said backchannel contacts that began during the PTI government’s tenure picked up pace in April after the change of government. But despite “intense” backchannel diplomacy, the two sides were not willing to concede an inch on their respective issues.
Pakistan is keen that India must take steps with regards to Kashmir before any process of normalisation of ties begins. New Delhi, however, is more interested in Islamabad first exploring the option of resuming bilateral trade.
But India instead of offering any concessions on Kashmir hardened its stance. Some of the developments including efforts to hold G-20 summit-related events in Srinagar did not go down well with Pakistan.
The friction in the relationship prevented Pakistani and Indian foreign ministers from interacting with each other at the recent meeting of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Tashkent.
Relations between the two countries have remained strained for years now and took a turn for the worse in August 2019, when India unilaterally revoked the special status of the disputed Jammu and Kashmir region.
Since then, diplomatic ties have been downgraded, bilateral trade suspended and there has been no structured dialogue. But even before the government of Prime Minister Shehbaz took charge, the two countries were talking to each other, albeit quietly.
Those contacts led to renewal of the ceasefire understanding in February 2021 and the truce is still holding with no major incident of ceasefire violation. But the process could not lead to a breakthrough in terms of resumption of dialogue between the two countries.
Since the new government came to power in Islamabad in April, there has been a renewed push by the two sides to find some way out. “Call it backchannels, Track-II or behind-the-scenes talks, I can only confirm that relevant people in both the countries are in touch with each other,” an official source said.
The source, however, said that he did not have the exact details of those contacts, adding that it was precisely the purpose of “backchannels” to keep the discussions under wraps, until something tangible had been decided.
Chances of an immediate breakthrough are slim given the political uncertainty in Pakistan and tough preconditions attached by both sides for any resumption of dialogue.
Premier Shehbaz in his maiden address to the nation asked India to reverse the August 5, 2019 actions so that both sides could engage in talks for the resolution of all outstanding issues, including Kashmir.
India, the sources said, is inclined to the re-engagement but reluctant to offer something that would help Pakistan resume the dialogue.
“Our policy is clear. We want to engage with everyone, including India,” a senior government member said, while requesting anonymity. The government functionary, however, was skeptical if the hardline Modi government could show any flexibility on the Kashmir issue.
The sources said that Western powers, including the United States and the UK, were also pushing for defusing tensions and opening some formal channels of communications between the two South Asian neighbours.
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