“Have we kept our nuclear bomb for Diwali?” was a recent outburst that emanated from New Delhi. Although some attribute it to PM Modi’s electioneering, this was not the first and last exchange of harsh statements between Pakistan and India. Whether these statements are termed political point scoring or electioneering, these have continued and will, unfortunately, continue in future, despite efforts by external actors through unofficial, interactive dialogue processes between both states.

Originating from Cold War, Track II initiatives have proved fruitful in easing out tensions between various states. In Pakistan as well, successful dialogue processes were witnessed during Zia and Musharraf eras where “cricket diplomacy” was tactfully utilised to maintain good bilateral ties. Because of these successes, people-to-people contacts, particularly in terms of cultural and sports exchanges, became the general norm. Various Pakistani organisations set up Track II dialogues from foreign funding.

It is pertinent to mention here that these Track II techniques were extremely useful and successful prior to 9/11. These run-of-the-mill approaches and methods used in the unofficial dialogues have now become almost redundant and it is high time we start accepting this reality.

Managing and being part of the Track 1.5 and II dialogues between Pakistan and India, and Pakistan and Afghanistan since 2013, I have witnessed certain lacunae in the overall process which, if filled, can serve the real purpose of these dialogues and can reshape overall strategic decisions to support both governments. Some of the important questions to be posed to the managers of the Track-II dialogues are:

1. I am pretty sure that the organisers and the stakeholders know very well about the “dissimilarity in the system” of India and Pakistan. While major decisions in Pakistan - particularly those related to the country’s relations with its neighbours - are carried out through Rawalpindi, in India, it is the government that takes major decisions and their military follows suit.

2. How is Track II dialogue aiding when there is a standoff between both states after every “successful” sitting between the stakeholders on both sides? Does bringing seasoned experts from both sides to sit across one table look like a successful dialogue process for organizers?

3. Are the “right people” being roped in for these dialogues or are they merely representing certain organizations following some standardised viewpoints?

4. Is there a system to inform or work out things with civil and military leadership before engaging themselves in the dialogue process? Mostly, both the foreign offices are not informed of the details of the dialogue process and only recommendations are shared with them. This is the main reason why the foreign offices become less interested in adopting the recommendations for practical implementation and / or revising policies.

5. Does taking foreign funds from third countries also mean that the dialogue process should toe the line of that country? How can western perspectives be applied to bilateral relations between two states – and especially in a scenario as sensitive as Pakistan and India ties.

6. Do the topics/points of discussion concentrate on the resolutions or out-of-box solutions instead of repeating similar possibilities that have been around since 1947? Are the discussions aligned with the policies on both sides?

7. Is people-to-people contact still applicable even when there is a diplomatic impasse between the states? We could see in the recent past that after the official disconnect, there was also a stalemate in other areas including people-to-people contacts - e.g. banning cricket, films and artists to work across the border, etc.

Mostly the list of participants for these dialogues is confined to the ostensibly official realm consisting of retired civil and military officials. The dialogue discussion is dominated by a group of these officials who are invited to every dialogue process being held between India and Pakistan. Since most of the dialogue attendees have represented their governments at some point in time in their official careers, therefore, they tend to adopt stances similar to the respective governments they have worked under.

After returning from the exotic locations where these dialogues are held, the interlocutors (as they are called) seem to lose their perspective indicated in the dialogue proceedings - thus proving not to be serious in a sustainable improvement of bilateral relations. Some of them, like Asad Durrani, utilise these kinds of platforms to author their own thrilling experiences with their neighbours in the form of a book.

The dialogues usually follow the Chatham house rules and the entire discussion remains “confidential” which can be very unhelpful for the governments in the long run. Keeping no trail of systematic literature of these back-channel discussions and not sharing details with the countries’ respective foreign offices can sabotage the basic purpose of these negotiations - ultimately leading the process to a dark, narrow alley. Additionally, given its western origin and funding, these dialogues remain less acceptable and are not taken seriously.

Concluding this discussion and hoping that the backchannel diplomacy would support good bilateral relations, I would maintain that Track II can never be a substitute for practical policymaking at the highest governmental level. In order to practically support respective policy-making, it is essential to be clear about both countries’ agendas. This is because the real decision making responsibility rests with the respective governments where national interests are taken care of before any other policy appraisal. Track II can play a vital role in changing the mindset of hate and recreate new mutual bonds of respect and cooperation but it cannot be a substitute for the official diplomacy as the private sector does not have the mandate to influence decision makers.

Having complex relations since 1947, there remains a high degree of unpredictability between Pakistan and India and in no time the illusion of peace created by the so-called “peace builders” ruptures when a single incident leads to a diplomatic standoff between the two neighbours. Therefore, it is important for private institutions and peace activists on both sides of the border to revise their policies and support the governments instead of supporting their own individual / organisations’ agendas. This can only be done when both sides keep their respective governments and other relevant institutions informed prior to holding such initiatives and throughout the process, focusing primarily on creating good bilateral relations within the confines of the government policies.