The recent diplomatic exchanges between Pakistan and India are akin to being on a treadmill: Plenty of activity and movement going nowhere. There has been a series of informal, high-level interactions last month on the sidelines of multilateral conferences — an Asia Europe meeting (ASEM) in Delhi and the Commonwealth Summit in Colombo. But the discussions have yielded no outcome.

This has left formal dialogue in pause mode and normalisation efforts at a standstill. India has ruled out resumption of the broad-based peace dialogue, despite repeated urgings by Pakistani officials — most recently by Pakistani foreign affairs adviser Sartaj Aziz during his mid-November visit to Delhi. Instead, Indian officials have alternated between setting conditions for reviving formal talks and narrowing the bandwidth for dialogue by cherry-picking issues.

The impasse over renewing composite dialogue is likely to persist until at least India’s general elections, due by May 2014. But it raises questions about Delhi’s post-election stance and the strategy that might be adopted to deal with Pakistan.

In mid-October India’s External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid reiterated that Delhi would not quickly return to the composite dialogue process. That has been apparent in spite of Islamabad’s efforts to accelerate the normalisation process since Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif assumed office. Sharif’s September 29 meeting with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New York ended with the Indian side making “improvement of the situation” on the Line of Control (LoC) a precondition for “forward movement” in relations.

Although LoC tensions have largely subsided (much fewer ceasefire violations in November compared to earlier months), the Indian posture on resuming formal talks has remained unchanged. This became apparent from various Indo-Pakistan encounters in November — Aziz’s meeting on November 12 with Khurshid, national security adviser Shivshankar Menon, and later Singh as well as Sharif’s brief November 16 meeting with Khurshid in Colombo.

Enough is known about these meetings to draw three conclusions. One, that the Indian side has shown no interest to resume formal dialogue. Whether this posture is a function of election politics or indicates how India wants to conduct future business with Pakistan will become clearer after the elections.

Two, in almost every encounter, the Indian side seemed to set conditions — even if they were not called that — for returning to the full-fledged talks process. Whether it was establishing “tranquility on the LoC” or “concretely” concluding the Mumbai trial, goal posts were laid out.

And three, in several of these meetings Indian officials signalled that while they might be willing to engage on some issues (trade, terrorism), on others of high priority for Islamabad (Kashmir, Siachen, Sir Creek, water), they were less forthcoming. This suggested a selective engagement approach to dialogue; and even this seemed predicated on Pakistan fulfilling prior conditions.

In consequence no dates for meetings between the two countries have been set for the coming months.

While these are all process issues, on substance, there was a revealing exchange between Aziz and Singh during his call on him on November 13. When Aziz suggested that Siachen and Sir Creek were two “doable” issues amenable to resolution, Singh replied that as Siachen had been affected by the Kargil experience it could now be addressed only as part of an overall settlement of Jammu and Kashmir. This further reinforced Islamabad’s impression, fuelled by the last two rounds of talks on the issue, of a hardening in Delhi’s position. On Sir Creek, Singh did not respond.

From the perspective of a long troubled relationship, that these diplomatic encounters took place at all is helpful to lower tensions between the two countries and improving the tone of relations. But diplomatic activity must also produce movement. To endlessly be talking about talks is a recipe for frustration and not progress.

The resurrection of a comprehensive peace process remains the best and most viable vehicle to manage differences and build on areas of convergence.

    Dr Maleeha Lodhi served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the US and United Kingdom.

–Khaleej Times