New Delhi: India has agreed to resume a multi-pronged "comprehensive" dialogue with Pakistan almost three years after it was suspended, marking a dramatic turnaround from the Narendra Modi government's earlier tough talk and signalling a bold attempt to resolve festering disputes.
The peace process, known by different names since 2004 when it was initiated, will include a series of parallel negotiations that India and Pakistan have held in the past, and fresh ones, foreign minister Sushma Swaraj said in Islamabad today.
The decision to resume what will now be called a "comprehensive bilateral dialogue", taken at a meeting between Sushma and her Pakistan counterpart Sartaj Aziz, came amid growing international pressure on Modi to return to negotiations with Islamabad.
It follows a series of meetings that were carefully kept away from the media glare till they were over. Prime Minister Modi met his counterpart Nawaz Sharif in Paris on November 30, and the national security advisers of the two nations met in Bangkok on Sunday.
"We had a very good meeting," Sushma said, describing her talks with Aziz, and earlier in the afternoon, with Sharif. "The new comprehensive dialogue process will have all the elements of the earlier composite dialogue, and additional elements."
The move represents a clear shift away from the Modi administration's past insistence on action against terrorism by Islamabad before returning to broader talks.
It also signals the near-complete return to a dialogue process that was championed by Modi's predecessor Manmohan Singh, who was mercilessly criticised by the BJP for his Pakistan policy.
Sections of the strategic community remained unconvinced about the gains of returning to what was initially called a "composite dialogue" and then, from 2011 to January 2013, a "resumed dialogue".
"I have had serious reservations about the composite dialogue," former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan G. Parthasarathy told The Telegraph this evening. "We will have to wait and see what the elements are that make up this new process."
The new talks will include parallel channels for negotiations on peace and security, counter-terrorism, Kashmir, Siachen, Sir Creek, the Wullar Barrage, confidence-building measures, economic relations, people-to-people exchanges, religious tourism and narcotics control, according to a brief joint statement issued by the two sides.
But foreign secretaries S. Jaishankar and Aizaz Ahmed Chaudhry, who have been instructed, Sushma said, to devise the "schedule and the modalities" for the different pillars of the new peace talks, will also be empowered to add additional elements. Sushma has committed to speaking in Parliament about her visit, and indicated today it would be inappropriate for her to reveal much before that.
Terrorism is a key area where the new dialogue differs from the earlier two avatars. The joint statement makes clear that the two NSAs - India's Ajit Doval and Pakistan's Nasser Khan Janjua - will lead a separate channel of negotiations on the subject.
Effectively, this limits Doval's influence on Modi's Pakistan policy to terrorism - leaving Jaishankar in charge of all other elements. Doval's intelligence-based approach had so far largely been driving the Prime Minister's tactics on Pakistan.
On terrorism, Doval (a career spy) and Janjua (a military commander) are matched for negotiations, Parthasarathy contended.
Sushma and Aziz decided, according to the joint statement, "that the NSAs will continue to address all issues connected to terrorism", following the "successful talks on terrorism and security in Bangkok".
But officials refused to disclose the specifics of what was discussed in Bangkok - and how that convinced the Modi government to retract from a posture Sushma had herself articulated for talks with Pakistan.
"Talks are only on if Pakistan gives a commitment tonight that Mr Aziz will not meet Hurriyat leaders and will not go beyond terrorism," Sushma had told a media conference hours before the then Pakistan NSA was to visit India for talks with Doval. "Otherwise, there will be no talks."
Doval and Janjua - successor as Pakistan NSA to Aziz who remains foreign minister - however, discussed not just terrorism but also Kashmir and security along the Line of Control when they met in Bangkok.
While Pakistan has long tried to get India back to a composite dialogue, New Delhi has used the suspension of talks, or the refusal to return to them, as sticks to pressure Islamabad to act against terrorism. Till late evening, the foreign office had offered no explanation on what had changed since talks were last suspended.
The composite dialogue, started by then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and then Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf in February 2004, was first suspended in late 2008 after the Mumbai terror attacks.
But in 2011, the two nations agreed to hold "a resumed dialogue". These talks, too, were suspended in January 2013 after India accused Pakistani soldiers of beheading an Indian jawan along the Line of Control.
Manmohan had repeatedly argued for resuming talks with Pakistan - "you can't choose your neighbours" was a favourite refrain of the former Prime Minister.
But approaching the 2014 national elections, the Congress was reluctant - attacked by the BJP, then in Opposition, for allegedly being "soft" on terror and, by extension, on Pakistan.
On Thursday, when Sushma speaks to Parliament, she might find the roles at least partially reversed.
The Telegraph Calcutta