Over the years, bilateralism has become a sort of a holy symbol a mantra -- that no one is willing to challenge, much less reconsider. The result is a rigidity in policy formulation that has prevented India from taking advantage of opportunities to get solutions to its liking by involving a third party. Or even international mediation.
Such an opportunity presented itself to India in the late 1990s until 2002-2003, when Pakistan was an international pariah and no country in the world was willing to back Islamabad's position on Jammu and Kashmir. But India's continuing colonial hangover prevented it from exploiting the discomfiture of an adversary to its advantage.
In international affairs, no country intervenes in a dispute between two other countries out of altruism.
India's experience during British colonial rule has made it very wary of involving a third party in its disputes within the region. The British were past masters in intervening in disputes between Indian rulers, all the time weakening both parties and increasing their own strength.
This lesson is one of the very few which Indian politicians seem to have learnt from history. In fact, other than this one lesson, Indian political leaders have repeated all the mistakes that were made in the past.
But learning a lesson is one thing and becoming victim of a lesson is an entirely different thing. That is what India has done by its blind adherence to the principle of bilateralism.
In making bilateralism an article of faith, India appears to have forgotten another lesson of international politics -- that nothing is permanent; equations and alliances change with time and circumstances. And that if you continue to be rigid about a particular principle you end up on the losing side.
This is exactly the danger India faces today.
Many in India see Pakistan's acceptance of a bilateral dialogue with India as a victory of India's longstanding policy of not allowing any interference by extra-regional powers to intervene in South Asian disputes.
On the face of it, Pakistan's engagement on a bilateral track with India was a sign of its failure to internationalise the Kashmir issue and its acceptance of the Indian position.
But this would be an incorrect assessment, simply because India's definition of bilateralism is not the same as Pakistan's.
Nearly six decades after Partition, despite using the same language and vocabulary, the nuances of the words being used by one side are not understood by the other. It is almost as though the idiom used by the people and establishments of the two countries has changed so much that neither side either understands nor is able to comprehend what the other side is saying.
This is exactly what has happened in the case of bilateralism.
In India, we take bilateralism to mean that two countries sort out their issues between themselves and without involving any third party. The sum and substance of the Indian understanding of the term is that it junks the United Nations resolutions on Kashmir and avoids any international interference in the issue. This, in turn, helps India to maintain status quo in Kashmir.
For Pakistan, bilateralism was defined first by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto way back in 1976. According to Bhutto, 'bilateral foreign policy means that there must be a minimum of reciprocity in bilateralism. If there is not a minimum of reciprocity in bilateralism it cannot be called a bilateral foreign policy. That means there must be an agreement on certain fundamental matters. Otherwise, what is bilateralism? In that case bilateralism is sterile. You cannot take pride in a bilateral foreign policy with your adversaries, whose interests conflict with your interests. If a State has a conflict of a fundamental nature with you, as for instance, it does not recognise your frontiers, or it does not accept certain basic interests of Pakistan, you cannot say you have bilateral relationship with that country.'
Bhutto's formulation holds true even today.
General Pervez Musharraf has hinted this on more than one occasion. In fact, he has even said that if the bilateral track doesn't work -- which according to Pakistan means that India doesn't agree to abandon Kashmir -- then Pakistan will be forced to take the issue once again to the international community.
But to be able to junk the bilateral track, Pakistan will have to show to the world that it is just not working, something which it cannot do at present simply because in the eyes of the world the bilateral track is proceeding smoothly.
If anything, the bilateral track suits Pakistan much more than India.
For one, Pakistan has an exit route if the bilateral track doesn't deliver an agreement on Kashmir. Pakistan can always say that it tried bilateral talks with India with utmost sincerity but Indian insincerity leaves it with no choice but to go back to demanding international intervention in the Kashmir dispute.
In international forums, Pakistan believes it enjoys greater sympathy than India, provided it can repair its image as an epicentre of Islamic terrorism and give the terrorism in Kashmir the colour of an independence struggle rather than an Islamic jehad.
India is loath to any international intervention, and this puts greater pressure on New Delhi to continue unveiling Confidence Building Measures that keep the Pakistanis engaged on the bilateral track and at the same time keep the rest of the world at bay.
From a purely tactical point of view also, bilateralism serves Pakistan's policy framework much better as it gives Islamabad an opportunity to try and change the status quo in Kashmir through the instrument of asymmetric warfare without any danger of international interference.
After all, India cannot talk of bilateralism and at the same time want to involve the rest of the world in putting pressure on Pakistan to close down the Jihad Factory that is operating from there.
India has painted itself into a corner by taking its insistence on bilateralism to an extreme.
Take for example the Indian aversion of any 'hyphenation' with Pakistan in its relations with the US. And yet, whenever an Indian meets an American, all that the Indian can talk about is Pakistan, US military and economic assistance to Pakistan, the insufficient pressure that the US is putting on Pakistan on the issue of cross-border terrorism, India's insistence that US declare Pakistan a terrorist State and the US plans to initiate political and social reforms inside Pakistan.
Perhaps, India would be better able to achieve its objectives in Pakistan by insisting on 'hyphenation' rather than 'non-hyphenation'!
Given the political, military and diplomatic benefits that bilateralism bestows on Pakistan, it is somewhat surprising why instead of India, Pakistan has not insisted on the bilateral approach.
The reason for this probably lies in the conflicting nature of relationship shared between India and Pakistan in which neither country believes that the policy of the other might actually work in its favour.
Pakistan, therefore, always puts its faith in third-party mediation and the UN resolutions. But towards the end of the 1990s, circumstances forced Islamabad to fall back on bilateral negotiations as the only way out of the cul-de-sac it found itself in on the issue of Kashmir.
To its credit, Pakistan has shown far greater nimbleness in the conduct of its foreign policy and has always adjusted its policy to circumstances without necessarily changing its objectives.
Pakistan opposed bilateralism because normally bilateralism suits the stronger country, which can keep any countervailing force at bay through bilateralism. A weaker country always wants international mediation because this way it manages to balance the power differential with the powerful country.
Today, Pakistan has created a situation in which it has agreed to enter into a bilateral dialogue with India, but one that is being closely monitored by the international community.
The pressure is now on India to prove that the bilateral track can actually deliver peace in South Asia. Pakistan can sit back and relax in the comfort of the knowledge that it holds the veto over anything in the bilateral dialogue that doesn't suit its interest.
After taking the bilateral track through a torturous but unproductive path, Pakistan can always invoke the attention of the international community to intervene.And, this time, international intervention will not go in India's favour. Because the world has changed, and the powerful countries of the world are increasingly inclined to appease the Islamic world.