As India prepares for renewed talks with Pakistan and with Maoist guerillas, an observer may wonder why the country’s track record in negotiations is so poor. Winston Churchill said, “jaw-jaw is better than war-war,” but there is a make-believe quality to it in India, as the mandarins appear to just go through the motions. There is no recognition that there is logic and structure to parleys; there is a difference between positions and interests; and ends and means must be separated.


Consider these instances—the negotiations over Tibet, where India meekly surrendered substantial treaty rights in return for nothing; border talks for the last 28 years that have only led to increasing Chinese claims on Indian territory; the interminable discussions with Pakistan, with no letup in cross-border terrorism. In Copenhagen, China hoodwinked India into a stand that helps China, a major polluter, not India, a minor villain. The “nuclear deal” with the United States also gave away too much in return for very little.

Success stories are rare: Arundhati Ghose famously fended off nuclear blackmail regarding Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) at the United Nations.

In his book Bargaining with the Devil: When to Negotiate, when to Fight, Robert Mnookin focuses on situations in which two parties that may consider each other evil sit down at the bargaining table. There should be a combination of intuitive as well as analytical approaches, he suggests. India fails here:

negotiators depend entirely on intuition, when a cold-blooded decision-tree analysis would help. Some Indian negotiators are seduced into accepting the other side’s perspectives, falling for sob-stories about poor villagers (never mind the cognitive dissonance about Communist insurgents blowing up said villagers’ schools).

The core issue with the negotiation style of Indian bureaucrats is the lack of clarity about objectives. Nobody knows what the goals are, what is absolutely non-negotiable, what are the “don’t-cares” that can be thrown in as concessions to clinch a deal. When talking to Maoist insurgents, the objective is to prevent their violent overthrow of the State; their civil rights are not the main concern. Let us remember: the human rights of insurgents and terrorists are not greater than the human rights of the average citizen.

Second, the negotiators do not distinguish between positions (some of which may be posturing for domestic consumption), and fundamental interests. China always takes extreme positions, probing for weaknesses. However, if there is credible push-back, China will retreat. To be deterred, they have to believe that India is prepared to fight if the talks fail. They don’t; nor do Pakistanis or communist insurgents. Without that implicit danda (punishment), the sama(persuasion), and dana (incentive) don’t work.

Third, because they do not internalize core interests, India’s negotiators are sidetracked into peripheral and trivial matters. An example was the panic about Indo-Pak rail links, which were jeopardized by a terror attack on the Samjhauta Express. There were pious pronouncements: “The rail links must not be affected.” Why? What is so sacred about that? The rail links are only a means to the end.

Negotiation and game theory (Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and William Ury is a favorite) are taught in business schools  and schools of government the world over, but apparently not to India’s mandarins. One of the cardinal principles is that you must be fully prepared with three alternatives: a) the desired goal, b) the compromise you can live with even though it is less than ideal, and c) the walk-away position. These alternatives are decided on ahead of time, and negotiators will not deviate from them. They will walk away if they cannot get to at least the compromise situation.

But Indians attempt to wing it and figure out their alternatives on the fly, and get confused and rattled, and lose out.

In game theory, a negotiation can be modeled as a repeated Prisoner’s Dilemma game. The best known tactic is tit-for-tat, so that if the adversary cooperates, you cooperate the next time; but if they betray you, you betray them the next time. Alas, Indians cooperate all the time, which means there is no penalty to Pakistan for betrayal; their payoff is better if they betray, so they will do it every time. Exhibit A: the 91,000 prisoners India released after the Bangladesh War. Exhibit B: Sharm-al-Sheikh, where the unfair equivalence of Baluchistan with Kashmir was accepted.

Similarly, communist insurgents have learned that they can offer talks and ceasefires, use the respite to re-arm themselves, and then turned around and betray the good faith. There is no consequence to them for their behavior.

In other words, India’s negotiation skills are extremely poor. It is best to not expect any miracles from these palavers.

However, it is intriguing that the Indian side literally ambushed the Pakistanis on February 25, 2010 with dossiers about three serving Pakistani Army officers accused of supporting terrorism. This more or less accuses Pakistan directly of being a terrorist state.

This is an interesting new situation: apparently an India that can say no.

But in response, there was a chilling editorial in the New York Times the very next day titled “India and Pakistan (Barely) Talk.” It displayeds barely-concealed annoyance: “No future discussions were scheduled. That is not enough, for the United States…” There was also a worrisome statement: “In 2007, after three years of secret negotiations, the two sides were reportedly close to a deal to create an autonomous, demilitarized region in Kashmir.” In other words, a secret American-brokered deal is in the wings regarding Kashmir, and that will be a disaster for India.

There is a simple first step that India needs to take. Following Shakespeare’s dictum in Hamlet: “This above all: to thine own self be true,” India should clarify exactly what its strategic long-term goals are: for instance, to be the number one economic power in the world. Once there is clarity about goals, the rest will follow logically.

A version of this opinion appeared in the Indian newspaper Daily News and Analysis.

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