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Managing the message

India-Pakistan dialogue needs better handling

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It is strange how the ghost of “Agra 2001” continues to haunt the Indian policy-making establishment when it comes to dialogues. Surely the diplomat responsible for media handling at that time, Ms Nirupama Rao, should know by now, as India’s foreign secretary, that in hosting a dialogue with Pakistan, the internal official homework is only half the job. Having a media strategy in place and communicating the message both before and after a meeting is the other half. Critics in India of the government’s policy of re-engaging Pakistan still refer to the infamous between Prime Minister and Pakistan President and wrongly suggest that no lessons have been learnt since. They forget that Mr Musharraf was in India once again in April 2005 and that summit went well as far as the management of the message was concerned. In fact, in 2005, several conservative and cautious diplomats warned Prime Minister against inviting President Musharraf to Delhi to watch a cricket match on the grounds that Dr Singh was still on a politically fragile ground at home and, given the damage Agra had done to Prime Minister Vajpayee’s authority at the time, a mismanaged summit with Mr Musharraf would irreparably damage Dr Singh’s tenure.

In the event, the April 2005 not only boosted Dr Singh’s image in the sub-continent and globally, but also launched one of the most productive phases in the history of the bilateral relationship. The Singh-Musharraf dialogue has helped create the template on which the India-Pakistan relationship will one day be normalised. When that day will come depends more on domestic political developments in both countries rather than the success of bilateral diplomatic engagement. Against this background, it is a pity that the foreign secretary-level meeting last week was not handled better by both sides. India would have had good reasons for taking the initiative to invite the foreign secretary of Pakistan and the government must have a well-considered strategy in mind. There is no reason to doubt the competence and the sagacity of the political and diplomatic leadership. But for some mysterious reason, the government has once again shied away from communicating its thinking to the media and the army of footloose commentators, many of them retired diplomats! The media abhors a vacuum in public opinion on India-Pakistan relations. If the government does not fill the space, somebody else will. Typically these are the naysayers and the nothing-doers — our own “nattering nabobs of negativism”.

What Indian diplomats need to learn, therefore, are not the lessons of “Agra 2001” but the lessons of “New Delhi 2005”. True, Pakistan today does not have a Pervez Musharraf type leader, but Dr Singh is still here and still focused on a plan he has worked hard to evolve along with President Musharraf. It offers the only way forward for both nations. Dr Singh’s government and party owe it to him to manage the process of engaging Pakistan better.

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