By: John Elliott

There is no prospect of India and Pakistan coming to terms and settling their border differences in the foreseeable future, certainly not in the lifetime of the two countries’ present governments and probably not for much longer. Efforts to improve the relationship in other ways will also be precarious and uncertain.

That has been clear for years, but it became even more obvious at the end of last week when planned talks between the two countries’ national security advisers (NSAs) on cross-border terrorism were scuttled in a flood of accusations and counter-accusations.

There are two reasons for the lack of hope.

One is that there can be no deal while Pakistan’s army chief and the ISI intelligence agency are the country’s final authority, not the democratically elected prime minister – and there is no prospect of that ending. Both the army and ISI have for decades seen aggression against India as central to their existence and ambitions.

As a democratically elected government, India would not deign to engage formally with General Raheel Sharif, Pakistan’s army chief, or the intelligence chiefs. So, officials say, they have to take the country’s democratically elected leaders such as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (no relation) at face value, which can obviously be misleading to put it mildly.

The second reason is that India is implacably opposed to any third party becoming involved as an intermediary, so the chances for incremental improvements in the relationship become mired in antagonistic confrontations.

Countries like the US and, to a lesser extent these days, the UK, can advocate peace talks and military restraint, but they have learned to their cost not to offend India by trying to mediate. Consequently, there was no chance last week of a desperately needed third party being able to try to bridge the gulf over debilitating quibbles – mainly about the agenda for the talks and who the Pakistan NSA could meet in India aside from the formal events.

Viewed from abroad, the events looked like a cross between a French farce, with characters rushing nosily across the stage banging doors, and a Chinese opera with actors belting out scripts to impress the audience without quite looking at each other.

This was a setback for Narendra Modi, who has wanted to draw Pakistan into a circle of improved sub-continental relationships that would lead to the sort of connectivity and interchanges that are routine between most neighboring countries elsewhere in the world. In South Asia, such a development has been stymied by decades of Pakistan-India antagonism. It has also been complicated in recent years by a growing Chinese presence.

Modi has however succeeded, to varying degrees, in showing how India can be friendly and useful – with Bangladesh where there has been a cross-border land swap deal and other talks, with Nepal on immediate earthquake relief and other initiatives, with Sri Lanka since the defeat of a pro-China president (who has lost two elections this year), and with Bhutan which is a long term land-locked ally.

Modi’s hopes were raised on July 10 when he met Nawaz Sharif in the Russian city of Ufa where they were attending BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organization summits.

The talks appeared to be unusually constructive. Sharif and his officials seemed to want to improve relations and join Modi’s circle of co-operation. With Pakistan’s security forces preoccupied with terrorism at home and a worsening situation in Afghanistan, Indian officials hoped that the country’s all-powerful army chief would support Nawaz Sharif’s acceptance of India’s request for talks between the two countries’ NSAs on “all issues connected to terrorism”.

Hopes rose when it was agreed that the foreign secretaries, Pakistan’s Aziz Chowdhury and India’s S. Jaishankar, would jointly draft and read out a statement (below) after the meeting – a rare if not unique event. Constructive agreed points included meetings between border security forces, and Modi attending a South Asia regional (SAARC) summit in Islamabad next year.

As soon as Nawaz Sharif returned to Islamabad, however, there were negative noises from Pakistan. The main complaint was that the statement agreed to discuss “all outstanding issues” but did not specify the usually-included issue of the disputed territory of Kashmir.