In recent months, there has been some discussion in the media of how close India and Pakistan were to reaching a peace agreement settling the Kashmir dispute, before Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was ousted from power by a popular movement galvanized by Musharraf's attempts to hold on to power by nakedly manipulating Pakistan's judiciary. I have previously expressed skepticism about the truth of such claims about the prospects for a peace deal, but perhaps the more important question to be asked is why, after six years of a "composite dialogue" process and numerous "people-to-people" exchanges, the Indian and Pakistani publics know so little about what their leaders have been saying to their counterparts on the other side, or what the contours of an ultimate deal might look like, or how to get there. This isn't a purely academic question: such mass ignorance ensures that Indo-Pak contacts remain -- even at the best of times -- at a relatively apolitical level, restricted to, for instance, cricket and hockey tours; liberalized visit visa regimes; or low-level trade across the Line of Control dividing Indian-held from Pakistani-held Kashmir, etc. None of these are trivial measures, and I welcome each of them -- but none of these goes any significant way toward preparing the people of India and Pakistan (including the people of the two Kashmirs) for a political settlement (specifically, for the compromises, disappointments, and challenges that must attend any settlement) -- with the result that even minor setbacks (let alone catastrophes like the Mumbai attacks of November 2008) lead to a resurgence of the old anxieties and frustrations, as if no peace process had ever intervened.
It isn't hard to see why leaders prefer to conduct talks in secret: premature (or indeed any) disclosure of negotiating positions, or intimations that one might accept the other side's positions, would likely help mobilize constituencies opposed to the particular proposal, and perhaps to the process in general, potentially derailing them. But the leaders of India and Pakistan have erred too much in the other direction: over the last few years, the substance of talks between the countries have been so confidential that the people of the two countries have known practically nothing about them, beyond that negotiations are taking place. The aim seems to be to present the public with a fait accompli, and then dare it to demur; rather than build support for the substance of what a peace deal might ultimately look like. Over the last five or six years, the governments of India and Pakistan have periodically stressed the desirability of peace, and the necessity of the two sides negotiating -- but have never attempted to secure a mandate (much less forge a consensus) on what the contours of a peace deal might look like. Rather, we have been treated to after-the-fact instances of this or that figure insisting that the parties were one stroke away from an ultimate deal. Not only does the cloak and dagger air of these negotiations make any such claims impossible to verify, but it raises serious questions about the viability of any peace deal that resulted from such a process. It may not be wise to expose every twitch of the peace turtle to the light of day, but to keep the animal under wraps over its entire lifespan smacks of weakness and fear, not the combination of determination and optimism that is needed to make peace between India and Pakistan. [For instance, with respect to the claims that the Musharraf and UPA governments were close to a final peace agreement on Kashmir, one notes that Kashmiri representatives do not appear to have played a meaningful role in the process; it beggars belief that the governments of India and Pakistan continue to believe -- at this late date -- that any solution can simply be presented to Kashmiris. The contours of this deal are not the point -- the deal India and Pakistan supposedly almost struck seems like a pretty good one to me -- the unacceptability of any deal to Kashmiris absent their participation in the process resulting in an agreement most certainly is.] Asif Ali Zardari and Manmohan Singh would do well to keep the failures of the last six years in mind -- beginning, above all, with the failure to take the people of the two countries into even minimal confidence, a monumental failure of the political imagination -- as the foreign secretaries of the two countries prepare to meet next month, in the first sign (since last November's Mumbai attacks) that the countries are prepared to move forward on the peace process.