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Sunil Sharan Headshot

Back Channel or Front

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Reestablishment of a diplomatic back channel is an outcome of the recent parlays between Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi and Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif. A back channel has existed almost uninterruptedly for the last decade, through the regimes of former Pakistani presidents, Pervez Musharraf and Asif Zardari, and former Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh.

What has the back channel achieved? It is claimed by Singh himself and by Musharraf's supporters that Kashmir was near resolution until events intervened (Lal Masjid in Pakistan, state elections in India). Anyhow, the back channel was replaced with new actors upon Zardari's ascent and did not show any results during his entire term.

The question that begs itself is why have a back channel when both countries are equipped upfront with competent foreign ministries. The back channel reports directly to the heads of government in both countries, and the answer perhaps lies in a lack of trust that the chief executives place in their own governments. Could there be leaks? Will someone sabotage the process?

The second answer is that prime ministers have got too used to wanting to preen themselves on the world stage. Credit for any result from the back channel would accrue directly to them. The back-channel players would continue to remain more or less hidden.

A third, and possibly, most pertinent answer is how badly the prime ministers want to run foreign affairs themselves, which brings one to the state of the foreign ministers in the two countries.

Lost in the din of Modi's inauguration was the wrangling that went into the formation of his government. Sushma Swaraj, who was supported by the Bharatiya Janata Party's patriarch, L.K. Advani, as the party's prime ministerial nominee, went into a sulk the minute Modi won the nomination. She did fight the elections, winning her parliamentary seat, but participated lacklustrely in the party's overall campaign.

After his handsome win, Modi was faced with what to do with Swaraj. Modi wanted to give her a relatively minor portfolio. She, on the other hand, wanted something commensurate with her seniority, having just been leader of the opposition. Nothing less than a Big 4 role -- finance, defense, home, or foreign affairs -- would do.

The matter, as in all things contentious in the BJP, went to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (the BJP's ideological parent), where Advani pleaded Swaraj's case and wangled the foreign affairs ministry for her.

In India, not only does the prime minister's office define foreign policy, it implements it directly through the ministerial bureaucracy. An example came up in public view in 2010 at a meeting in Islamabad of the then-Indian foreign minister SM Krishna and the then-Indian foreign secretary Nirupama Rao with Pakistan's then-foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi. Rao, during the meeting, was apparently taking instructions on the phone from the prime minister's office in New Delhi, which got Qureshi riled up. Krishna could only smile self-effacingly through the incident.

Swaraj's plight was in full view at the gathering of SAARC leaders at Modi's swearing-in ceremony, where she was made to do a lot of chaperoning, leaving significant pronouncements for the foreign secretary to make. How long then will Swaraj suffer her marginalization?

She could take a leaf from Hillary Clinton's book, and adorn her office for a few years, hoping that better days will come. But while Clinton had to deal with a very withholding White House, she knew that the American system gives the president only so many years, after which she could make a play for higher office.

In Swaraj's case, Modi could rule for 10 years or more. Or, he could trip and fall well before then. In any case, in a cabinet rife with alpha-males, she will have to keep a low profile until the time is ripe to make her move.

What about the situation in Pakistan? Unlike the Zardari regime, which had two ambitious foreign ministers, Sharif, even after a year in office, refuses to appoint one. He has in Sartaj Aziz a foreign affairs adviser, a competent adviser no doubt, but an adviser nevertheless. Fortunately for Aziz, he also holds the natural security role, otherwise he could be forgiven for having lost his patience by now.

Sharif obviously wants to be fully in charge of foreign affairs but there are only so many air miles he can run up. And then does he not compromise Aziz by outranking him in front of other foreign ministers.

The army, which plays a significant role in Pakistan's foreign policy, is perhaps the main reason why Sharif is being so covetous. With the reins firmly in his hands, he can directly manage the army and avoid missteps. But how long can the current situation continue?

In the end though, all of this may be moot. The two foreign secretaries will meet, then talk about talks, and then elevate things to a higher level. In the meantime, a high-powered back channel will be set up, with little or no accountability, no fixed time-table, and divorced from the front window dressing.