Foreign policy

Diplomatic surprise

Print edition : June 27, 2014

Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif greets Prime Minister Narendra Modi after the swearing-in ceremony in New Delhi on May 26. Also seen are (from right) Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Mauritius Prime Minister Navinchandra Ramgoolam, Indian President Pranab Mukherjee and Vice-President Hamid Ansari. Photo: ADNAN ABIDI/REUTERS

The invitation to the Pakistan Prime Minister to attend the swearing-in of Narendra Modi may have been a diplomatic coup but Nawaz Sharif agreed to come as he was looking for something more substantial than a photo-op.

PRIME MINISTER Narendra Modi, who has spent much of his political career demonising the Pakistani political leadership, civilian as well as military, staged a diplomatic coup of sorts by inviting his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif for the elaborate swearing-in ceremony of his new Ministry in New Delhi on May 26.

The invitation took the diplomatic community by surprise as Modi and other senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders on the campaign trail could not contain themselves from making snide remarks about Pakistan. Modi’s surprise invitation to Sharif and the heads of the other member-countries of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is being viewed as an attempt to reset bilateral relations as countries in the subcontinent are wary about the return of the nationalist BJP to power at the Centre. Modi recently stated that the invitation to Sharif and other SAARC leaders was the most important foreign policy initiative taken by the new government as yet.

The Bangladeshi leadership was also peeved at the rhetoric Modi had resorted to during the election campaign. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was conspicuous by her absence at the swearing-in ceremony held in the forecourt of the Rashtrapati Bhavan. She was on an official visit to Japan at the time. She was represented by the Speaker of the Bangladesh Parliament. The controversial presence of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the ceremony made Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa and leaders of most other parties from the State stay away from the function. Vaiko, leader of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), which is an electoral ally of the BJP, staged a protest in the capital against the invitation extended to Rajapaksa.

Sharif grabs attention

But it was the presence of Sharif that grabbed the most attention. The Pakistani Premier took a couple of days to formally accept the invitation extended by the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government. There was speculation that he was reportedly under pressure from the country’s powerful security establishment to politely decline the invitation. The foiled terror attack on the Indian consulate in the Afghan city of Herat was viewed by the intelligence community as a desperate attempt by anti-Indian militant groups to dissuade Sharif from visiting New Delhi.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai specifically told the media in New Delhi that the attack on the Herat consulate was carried out by Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) militants. The LeT has its base in Pakistan. There was considerable media debate in Pakistan on the issue with many of the commentators weighing in against Sharif making the visit. Ever since the Gujarat pogrom in 2002, Modi has acquired the image of a strident Hindu nationalist in many Muslim countries, including Pakistan.

Sharif, it seems, decided to accept the Indian invitation after he was assured that it would entail something more substantial than a photo-op with the new Prime Minister. After the Modi-Sharif meeting, there was the expected announcement that both sides were keen to restart the stalled dialogue process. No firm dates were announced for the commencement of the bilateral talks. There was only a commitment that the Foreign Secretaries of the two governments would meet soon and the announcement that Modi had accepted Sharif’s invitation to visit Pakistan. Again, no dates were mentioned.

Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did not have the privilege of visiting Pakistan even once during his 10 years in office, despite his publicly stated desire to do so. Actually, it was the BJP that had loudly objected to Manmohan Singh going to Islamabad. The BJP insisted that such a visit was unwarranted when anti-India terror groups continued to operate from Pakistan. Now that the BJP is back in power, there is an apparent change, albeit cosmetic so far, in its stance. The last Indian Prime Minister to have visited Pakistan is the BJP’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

The new External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, said that during the talks between the two Premiers the Indian side remained focussed on the issue of terrorism. The Indian Foreign Office said New Delhi had reiterated that Islamabad stop its support for Islamist groups with an anti-India agenda operating on Pakistani soil, and expedite the trial and conviction of those involved in the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai. “We told Pakistan that we want good relations but the voice of talks gets lost in the sound of bomb blasts,” she told the media. She said Modi had bluntly conveyed to the visiting Pakistani dignitary that meaningful talks could be resumed only after “the din of bomb blasts” was subdued.

The Kashmir issue

In his brief interaction with the Indian media, Sharif said that the 50-minute meeting with Modi was “good and constructive” and was held in a “warm and cordial atmosphere”. At the same time, he said that there was no need “for accusations and counter-accusations” to be bandied about, stating that they were “counterproductive”. Pakistani officials said that the Kashmir issue did come up for discussion and that the Foreign Secretaries of the two countries would discuss “all bilateral issues, without exception”.

Sharif, however, did not meet the separatist leaders from Kashmir as visiting Pakistani leaders had previously done during their visits to New Delhi. He has come in for criticism at home for his alleged soft-pedalling of the Kashmir issue during his short sojourn in New Delhi. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf party, led by Imran Khan, found fault with Sharif for not raising the Balochistan issue. Islamabad has alleged that the Balochi separatist were being funded and armed by India and that India’s network of consulates in Afghanistan was being used for this purpose.

Sharif, had on previous occasions, emphasised his desire to increase economic links with India. He indicated that he was in favour of giving most favoured nation (MFN) status to India. He said both the countries should work to overcome their mutual mistrust and that regional peace and stability was the key to achieving regional prosperity.

Sartaj Aziz, Foreign Policy and National Security Adviser of the Pakistan Premier, said in Islamabad that the urgent need was to resume “comprehensive and substantive dialogue” on all the outstanding issues between the two countries.

“The [peace process] agenda has to be updated and restructured. The entire process has to be reviewed,” Aziz told the media in Islamabad after his return from New Delhi. Peace talks between the two countries have remained suspended since January 2013, following skirmishes along the Line of Control (LoC).

The Pakistani media has reported that Sharif, during his talks with Modi, had offered to separate Kashmir and terrorism-related issues from the composite dialogue process. According to reports, he proposed that the two issues could be discussed separately at a political level between the two leaders.

New Delhi has sought to link most terror attacks on Indian soil to groups such as the LeT operating from Pakistan.

Until recently many terror groups were allowed to act with virtual impunity by sections of Pakistan’s powerful establishment. But now Pakistan itself is seriously threatened by home-grown terror groups. The lawless tribal areas adjoining the border with Afghanistan are teeming with “jehadi” terrorists. Terror plots are being hatched unceasingly against the enemies of Islam, real and perceived.

Much of the attacks since last year have occurred inside Pakistan, with minority sects such as the Shias and the Ahmadiyas bearing the brunt of them.

In India, terrorist attacks have been increasing steadily since the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya (Uttar Pradesh) in 1992. The unresolved Kashmir issue has provided fertile ground for the growth of militant groups in the Kashmir Valley.

Since 2001, after the terror attacks on New York and Washington in the U.S. and the consequent U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, terrorism has received a fillip worldwide. The blowback from all these has already started with the militant groups now targeting the West. For that matter, it was the West that gave the initial encouragement to global jehadism when it stepped in to support the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1970s and 1980s.

Strategic miscalculations by the West have continued, with proxies of the West supporting extremists in Syria with the short-term goal of effecting a regime change in that country. British, French and U.S. nationals have been allowed to join the radical Islamist groups in the Levant. Many are returning home to direct their ire at their own governments.

Most observers and strategic analysts are of the view that the fast-changing situation in Afghanistan will determine the direction of India-Pakistan relations in the immediate future. The U.S. is all set to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan by the end of the year.

The Barack Obama administration is continuing to hold secret talks with the Afghan Taliban. The recent prisoner exchange between the two sides confirms this. U.S. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel expressed the hope that the prisoner exchange would lead to direct talks between the U.S. government and the Taliban.

Hagel said that the U.S. supported the Afghan-led effort to reach a peace agreement with the Taliban. U.S. security analysts have concluded that once the bulk of the U.S. Army withdraws, it will be difficult to militarily contain the Taliban forces and preserve the security gains made in more than a decade of war in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan elections

Abdullah Abdullah, who is considered close to India, is likely to emerge victorious in the presidential election that is under way in Afghanistan. Islamabad may no longer look at Afghanistan for providing “strategic depth” for its armed forces, considering the new realities. But it would like to safeguard its legitimate strategic interests there. The Pakistani security establishment wants the Afghan Taliban to play a key role in any government that would be formed after the withdrawal of the U.S. troops.

The Taliban, in fact, wants a share of power after the occupation forces leave. Such a development is anathema in capitals such as New Delhi and Tehran. But if the Taliban is not accommodated politically, a full-scale civil war could break out once again. The Taliban, whether one likes it or not, represents the majority Pashtun population.

American officials have urged the leaderships in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan to work towards promoting “greater stability and security” in the region.