“Terror and talks can’t go together” is the Modi government’s alliterative mantra on dialogue with Pakistan. When India’s leaders chant this zealously from podiums in Nizamabad, Astana and New York, the logic seems unassailable. But the time is ripe for New Delhi to rethink this policy, for the government to recognise that it should not stop talking to Pakistan until the last roots of violence have been eliminated. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’s recent success in negotiating an end to civil war in his country should persuade Prime Minister Narendra Modi to take a chance on this counter-intuitive strategy.
The Colombian approach
“Colombians thought it was impossible but we did it,” Santos said, while speaking at Harvard University on September 20. “Every conflict can be resolved. But it needs political will and courage.” Santos received the Harvard program on negotiation’s “Great Negotiator Award” for his role in ending the 52-year civil war with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) that killed more than 220,000 Colombians. Over six years, he oversaw a painstaking negotiation process that resulted in a comprehensive peace agreement spanning issues from drug trafficking to gender parity. Although serious implementation challenges remain, the agreement’s greatest success lies in ending the violent phase of the conflict. The last remaining FARC fighters laid down their arms in June.
Colombians tested a new approach to ending violence: fight terror as if there are no negotiations, negotiate as if there is no terror. Santos’s government agreed to a two-way ceasefire only as the last step of a six-year negotiation. Nonetheless, both parties remained committed to talks despite spectacular acts of violence. The FARC, for example, did not break off talks even after Santos ordered the ruthless elimination of its top leader in 2011. Similarly, Santos resisted immense public pressure to stop negotiations after the FARC’s bloody ambush on 12 sleeping soldiers in 2015.
Talking while fighting with Pakistan
In Kashmir, a 2003 ceasefire across the “Line of Control” still holds on paper. But every time talks begin, they are predictably disrupted by violent episodes – whether ceasefire violations, beheadings, or dramatic terror strikes. The history of India-Pakistan negotiations tells us that it is counter-productive to expect violence to end before talks can begin. Unrealistic pre-conditions set up well-intentioned governments to fail, and fail yet again. Instead, Modi could take a leaf out of Colombia’s playbook and commit to a long-term dialogue process, recognising that violence can end as an outcome of negotiations but not if it becomes the primary obstacle to talks.
Dialogue-naysayers in India and Pakistan both argue that talking to one’s enemy endangers national security and border safety. A talking-while-fighting approach can accommodate these concerns since it does not ask India or Pakistan to stop defending their borders or responding to security threats. It suggests that leaders should empower political negotiators to keep doing their job, even while the security forces do theirs. This is smart strategy, not naiveté.
Spending political capital
But this strategy would admittedly pose a deeper political dilemma for Modi. Like Santos, Modi prides himself on being a strong leader capable of aggressive posturing against external threats. Garnering support for a long-term peace process, however, can often cost leaders popularity with their own constituencies – an infinitely tougher threat for them to stomach. When Santos began secret talks with the FARC in 2010, for example, he had been elected as one of the Colombia’s most popular presidents, riding on the military blows he dealt the FARC as defence minister. By February of this year, a peace agreement was in hand but his own approval ratings had plummeted to 24%. Peace was a bigger gamble for Santos than war could ever have been.
The question is whether Modi will be willing to spend precious political capital on continuing talks with Pakistan even when doing so makes him unpopular? What will he do when faced with a tragic terror attack performed under the glare of national and international media? When his ministers would like to out-do each other in establishing their patriotic credentials? When the TV anchors are crying war from news studios? And when the opposition is baying for his blood?
If Modi were determined to make progress on resolving Kashmir, his biggest challenge would not be Pakistan. The harder task would be to carry his own people along as he makes the compromises necessary to resolve conflict. He is arguably in a better position to do this right now than any other Indian leader in the 21st century. His dominance within his own party is practically unchallenged. The political opposition remains tepid at best and poses a minimal threat to his re-election prospects. Preparing the ground for long-term negotiations with Pakistan now will ensure that he can reap the fruits of the process during his next term. A peace agreement on Kashmir is, after all, a unique legacy that would secure his place in history.
It is true that Kashmir is not Colombia and Modi will need to work with his own political calculus. The territorial tug-of-war among nuclear rivals – India, Pakistan and China – tied to an internal armed conflict within Kashmir complicates matters. The pre-conditions for success in Colombia – from credible negotiation counterparts to a genuine interest in ending the conflict – may still have to be created in India and Pakistan. Nevertheless, Colombia is a reminder that making history will take fresh thinking, political risk, a marathon mentality, and a leader strong enough to resist the temptation to give up before crossing the finish line.
Ameya Kilara is a leadership fellow at the Center for Public Leadership, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Her research with the Program on Negotiation has focused on the role of leadership in peace processes. She has worked in law and international conflict resolution, most recently with the South Asia Programme at Conciliation Resources, London.