Three things stand out starkly in the so-called 'peace process' between India and Pakistan. The first is the way Pakistan now sets the agenda for political talks and all that Indian leaders do is to react to Pakistani demands, however wild or absurd they may be.
The second is the manner the United States has become a broker in the process, sometimes behind-the-scenes and sometimes not so quietly.
And the third is the way India is giving greater prominence, leeway and respectability to the secessionist Hurriyat, to the extent that this organisation now pretends to be the 'third party' in the ongoing process, although its motley leaders represent no one but themselves.
In the run-up to the New York meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf, the public discourse and media coverage was entirely influenced by the Pakistani agenda.
Will India agree to withdraw from the Siachen Glacier?
Will India accede to a reduction in its military deployments in the valley?
Is India ready to declare a cessation of counter-insurgency operations in Kashmir?
Is India willing for faster progress on the Kashmir issue?
These were the questions that dominated the discussion, as Musharraf made it clear before leaving Pakistan that the future of the 'peace process' was now linked to 'valley-centric forward movement'.
When the Manmohan Singh-Musharraf meeting took place, its outcome was measured in terms of the Pakistani agenda and Pakistani demands. The media story was that India rejected a pullout of troops from the terrorist-infested Kupwara and Baramulla districts or a reduction in army deployments across the valley. In other words, India was cast negatively, with Pakistan proposing steps for 'forward movement' and India rejecting them.
Even the leaked details of the Manmohan Singh-Musharraf meeting reveal that the Pakistani ruler took the Indian PM by surprise with his demands. And all that Manmohan Singh could do in that lengthy, late-night meeting was either to gripe about Musharraf's hard-line UN speech, in which he provocatively equated Kashmir with Palestine, or say no to his demands.
It is testament to the timidity of the Indian State that Pakistan is able to up the ante through ridiculous demands and then cast India as the obstructionist. In fact, Islamabad has been able to keep the spotlight on the Kashmir issue.
Such is the pusillanimity that no Indian leader has urged the Pakistani dictator to move towards democracy on grounds that there can be no lasting peace if Pakistan continues to be ruled by the military, which has a vested interest in perpetuating hostility with India. And although India says it has not given up its claim to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, including the Northern Areas, it never raises any issue related to PoK in the discussions with Pakistan.
There has been unrest in the Northern Areas for many months over the Shia majority's demand for an end to Pakistani military repression. Yet, have you heard any Indian leader call for the withdrawal of Pakistani army troops from there? India has also shied away from making any comment on the spreading tribal insurrection in Baluchistan.
On the eve of Manmohan Singh's departure for New York via Paris, India, in a move intended to play to the US gallery, announced the pullback of the Border Security Force from Srinagar and the induction in its place of the poorly trained and equipped Central Reserve Police Force. It was this move that emboldened Musharraf to demand, first in his meeting with US President George W Bush and then in his discussions with Manmohan Singh, that the Indian Army withdraw from two districts along the Line of Control, Kupwara and Baramulla.
It is well-known that America has been playing a back-channel diplomatic role in promoting dialogue and confidence-building measures between India and Pakistan. The abrupt policy U-turns on Pakistan during Atal Bihari Vajpayee's government came at the prodding of Washington, which successfully dissuaded India from launching any retaliatory action during Operation Parakram in 2002. Having helped to stabilise the rule of its pet dictator, Musharraf, America now wants to use the 'peace process' to underpin its strategic interests in Pakistan and India and sell billions of dollars worth of weapons to both.
But can the US really pretend to be a honest broker between India and Pakistan? A day after the Manmohan Singh-Musharraf meeting, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met the Indian prime minister in his hotel room to urge him to make some concessions on Kashmir that the Pakistani ruler could take back home. That shows the extent to which Washington is willing to back Musharraf.
The greater importance that India is now giving to the Hurriyat is, clearly, at the US urging. In fact, to coincide with the Manmohan Singh-Musharraf meeting, New Delhi allowed Hurriyat chief, Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, to travel to New York, where he met with Musharraf and supported the Pakistani view that the 'people of Kashmir' should be involved in the 'peace process.' This move, along with the PM's meeting with the Hurriyat team in New Delhi, helps create an impression that there is a 'third party' to the Kashmir issue with which India is now willing to deal with, even if reluctantly.
Designed as the political face of the underground militant campaign, the Hurriyat was set up with Pakistani funding and the tacit support of then US Assistant Secretary of State Robin Raphel. It was fattened by the Vajpayee government and is now being made respectable by Manmohan Singh, who not only allowed its representatives to travel to PoK but also rewarded them with a meeting in New Delhi after they had violated the tour deal and travelled from PoK to other parts of Pakistan. The political short-sightedness in New Delhi is creating a monster that will one day come to haunt India.
In his address to the UN General Assembly, the PM did well to state: 'For several years, India has faced cross-border terrorism directed against its unity and territorial integrity. We shall never succumb to or compromise with terror, in Jammu and Kashmir or elsewhere.' However, there was a striking lack of consistency in his statements in New York.
On the one hand, Manmohan Singh told Bush that 'our belief is that Pakistan still controls the flow of terror and they must stop it for any realistic progress.' According to Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, the PM in his meeting with Bush 'very clearly enunciated how violence and terror cast a shadow on our ability to carry this process forward.' Manmohan Singh repeated this line in person to the Indian media accompanying him.
Yet, on the other hand, the joint statement of September 14, negates that very stance by recording: 'The two leaders referred to the earlier statements of January 6, 2004 and April 18, 2005 and reiterated their pledge that they would not allow terrorism to impede the peace process.' In other words, even if Pakistan continues to hold the gun of terrorism to India's head, India will not allow the 'peace process' to be impeded.
Credible and effective leadership demands that there be no gulf between principle and practice, and no conflicting messages.
It is imperative that India not allow Pakistan to set the agenda for the discussions at the political level. Despite the PM's rejection in New York of the Musharraf demand for troop reductions in Kashmir, Foreign Minister Natwar Singh says that India will assess after the winter months whether the situation on the ground warrants such reductions. Any increase or decrease in troop numbers is an internal security matter tied to the level of terrorist activity, and cannot become the subject of negotiations with the external sponsor of terrorism.
At times, the Indian government watches helplessly as even the media begins to influence the bilateral agenda. For instance, by focusing on the plight of only one of the many Indian prisoners rotting in Pakistani jails, Sarabjit Singh, the Indian media has handed an issue to Pakistan which it is gladly milking for propaganda value. Islamabad was quick to use the case of Sarabjit Singh to turn the tables on India by highlighting India's alleged role in subversion and terrorism in Pakistan through the likes of Sarabjit Singh.
More broadly, Indian foreign policy needs to ensure that it is not paying excessive attention to Pakistan at the cost of India's larger strategic interests. Foreign Secretary Saran says India is engaged not 'in event making' but in a long process with Pakistan. If that is so, why does India hype every meeting with Pakistan? Such hype only puts undue emphasis on India's relations with Pakistan at the expense of its larger interests.
More than India-Pakistan relations, the key issue for the region relates to the very future of Pakistan. Will Pakistan become a stable, modern Muslim state, or will it sink deeper in fundamentalism, terrorism and militarism? That will be decided not by India. Despite the failed meeting with Musharraf in New York, Natwar Singh is getting ready to go to Islamabad shortly and Manmohan Singh has accepted an invitation to also visit Pakistan.
Brahma Chellaney is professor at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.