Changing tack

Print edition : January 08, 2016

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif during the Ministerial Conference of Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process in Islamabad on December 9. Pakistan's Foreign Affairs Adviser Sartaj Aziz (right) looks on. Photo: PTI

The Sangh Parivar dilutes its aggressive posturing of the past and takes nuanced positions to justify the Narendra Modi government’s new dialogue with Pakistan.

A SET of rhetorical expressions with reference to Pakistan that Narendra Modi had been repeatedly using since the early years of this decade were immensely popular within the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar and helped bolster his campaign to win the nomination for the prime ministership. The expressions went thus: “It is evident that Pakistan is promoting terrorism. There are any number of events that show this. So, as a country we need to respond in a language that Pakistan understands. India should stop making a spectacle of itself by exchanging love letters with Pakistan’s leadership. Instead, we should take measures to isolate terrorists, isolate terrorist activity, and isolate countries that support these activities.” Although it was not overtly stated, it was evident what Modi meant by the “language that Pakistan understands”. It meant the use of force and employment of aggressive stratagems to counter Pakistan. And the reference to the “exchange of love letters” was an euphemism for sharing documents pertaining to terrorist activities and negotiations. Modi used to conclude these rhetorical argumentations by stating that the path followed by the Congress and the United Progressive Alliance government led by it did not yield any tangible results and that a strong political leadership was required to bring about concrete and positive results for India vis-a-vis Pakistan.

This line of argument did find a sizable chunk of supporters among the so-called “independent” middle class, but the most vociferous support came from the self-professed “dedicated and ideologically committed” Sangh Parivar organisations such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal. These groups had expected Modi to live up to his words when he led the National Democratic Alliance to form a government with a huge majority. The cancellation of two rounds of talks with Pakistan since the formation of the Modi government at the Centre in 2014 was perceived and projected by these groups as a determined step towards developing “aggressive stratagems” against terrorism, particularly in relation to Pakistan. In August 2014, Foreign Secretary-level talks were cancelled, and in August 2015, National Security Advisers (NSA)-level talks too were called off. The reason given by the Modi government for the cancellation of the NSA-level talks fit in with the appreciation that the Hindutva groups were circulating through various media. The meeting was cancelled on the grounds that the Pakistan representatives met leaders of the “separatist” Hurriyat Conference and that this was among the “red lines” that should not have been crossed. In the words of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, the talks were called off because India had insisted that terror and talks could not go together. India wanted to discuss terrorism as the single-most important issue in August 2015.

However, barely four months later, India and Pakistan got around to commencing the NSA-level talks afresh, that too without any substantive gain on the parameters that the Modi government had set and the Hindutva groups propagated in August. Sushma Swaraj’s admission in Parliament that the talks were being restarted though “nothing has changed on the ground” was indeed a sort of setback for the Hindutva groups championing “aggressive stratagems”, particularly because Pakistan has given no assurance on discontinuing its dialogue with the Hurriyat. Making an oblique reference to India’s categorisation of the Hurriyat as “saboteurs” in August, she said the Modi government’s present intent was to not get provoked by “saboteurs” who want to stop bilateral talks.

Making a statement on her visit to Islamabad and her talks with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz in the first week of December, she told both Houses of Parliament that India and Pakistan condemned terrorism and resolved to cooperate to eliminate this menace. “We dwelt on the need for Pakistan to expedite the Mumbai terrorist attacks trial. The Indian side was assured of the steps being taken to expedite its early conclusion. Accordingly, it was decided to begin a dialogue with Pakistan under the new title ‘Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue’. The Foreign Secretaries have been tasked to work out the modalities and the schedule of the meetings under the new dialogue.” She assured the Members of Parliament that the government accorded the highest priority to the country’s security and that it would take necessary steps to take on the threats through diplomatic channels and other means. She, however, added that the government was committed to building an environment of peaceful and cooperative relations with all its neighbours, including Pakistan. Initiatives on trade and connectivity, people-to-people exchanges and humanitarian issues would contribute to the welfare of the entire region and promote better understanding and mutual trust. The new dialogue, she hoped, would mark a new beginning for peace and development in the whole region.

Sangh Parivar response

The Sangh Parivar’s response to the new stance of the government ranges from outright approbation to qualified support. The primary argument is that Pakistan has agreed to talk with terrorism as an important component, although it has not given any assurance on discontinuing talks with the Hurriyat separatists. The second argument is that while initiating the talks, Sushma Swaraj made it clear that there would be no assurance of an “uninterruptible” dialogue.

Yet another argument is that the RSS gave a direction in the first week September to the Modi government emphasising the need to create a climate for peace in the subcontinent. Citing an RSS resolution of this period that spoke about the concept of Akhand Bharat and the cultural affinity that existed among the member-countries of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), a relatively young RSS activist from western Uttar Pradesh told Frontline that somebody as senior as Dattatreya Hosabale, joint general secretary of the RSS, had presented a resolution underscoring the need to pursue stringent security initiatives and negotiations parallelly.

Yet another dominant stream of opinion is represented by the VHP, which holds on to the view that Pakistan should be first made “accountable for all the terror acts it has unleashed in India”. Surendra Kumar Jain, VHP joint general secretary, told Frontline that while the VHP welcomed the reinitiating of NSA-level talks, it was also of the view that Sushma Swaraj should have insisted on a public and formal apology from Pakistan for all the terror acts it had carried out in India. “In the absence of such an open and categoric admission, it would be difficult for the talks to have any real meaning and they would not progress to really fruitful results.” Jain said that this was a demand that the VHP and other constituents of the Sangh Parivar had been raising consistently.

A more nuanced view, although not stated openly, relates to the connection between domestic political developments and the initiatives on the Pakistan front. A senior RSS activist from Lucknow was among the few who gave this perspective, albeit in private. His view was that the aggressive and uncompromising postures of August 2014 and 2015 fitted in with the Parivar’s political plans, especially in the context of crucial Assembly elections, including the one held in Bihar. “The anti-Pakistan posture does come in handy to advance the Bharatiya Janata Party’s and the Sangh Parivar’s political and electoral planks in such a context. It is not too far back in time that BJP president Amit Shah had warned that crackers would be burst in Pakistan if the BJP lost Bihar. The time for such rhetoric is past, especially in the context of the BJP’s resounding defeat in Bihar. Now, we need to address other issues and seek some substantive governance gains that could be highlighted politically. By any yardstick, these tactics were part of the plans of the Sangh Parivar and the BJP even during the tenure of A.B. Vajpayee [1998-2004].”

Evidently, the words of the senior RSS activist carry the strength of experience, but Sushma Swaraj and Modi have a long way to go before they can match the record the Vajpayee government managed to generate in terms of India-Pakistan relations.

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