Showmanship, no breakthrough

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surprise stopover at Lahore is of a piece with his government’s blow-hot-blow-cold approach to Pakistan.

Published : Jan 06, 2016 12:30 IST

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan greets Narendra Modi in Lahore on December 25.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan greets Narendra Modi in Lahore on December 25.

The sudden diplomatic turnaround by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Pakistan has come as a pleasant surprise to foreign policy analysts. Most commentators have welcomed the belated move by the Indian Prime Minister to kick-start the stalled dialogue process between the two countries once again. The government has claimed it was an impromptu visit to Lahore on Christmas Day following Modi’s phone call to his Pakistani counterpart to wish him on his birthday. Modi had been scheduled to return to Delhi from Moscow via Kabul. Many commentators in India and Pakistan, however, are of the opinion that the Prime Ministers’ meeting was a carefully choreographed one. All the same, for the record, it is the first visit by an Indian Prime Minister to Pakistan in about 12 years. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was keen on visiting Islamabad at the end his tenure, but the rhetoric coming from the Opposition benches, dominated by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), scuttled his plans.

The Congress, in particular, was critical of Modi’s “unannounced and unprecedented” Lahore visit. Congress leaders point out that it is the first time in 67 years that an Indian Prime Minister has made an unannounced visit to a neighbouring state and that he came back without getting any of the assurances he had been demanding from Pakistan. The Left parties welcomed the visit but sought more meaningful and substantive measures to improve bilateral relations instead of the cosmetic touches that have been provided so far by the Modi government.

In his election campaign trail, Modi had adopted a belligerent attitude and constantly belittled the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s half-hearted attempts to normalise relations with Pakistan and also resorted to Pakistan-bashing. During the Assembly elections in Gujarat in 2002, which brought him into the national limelight, his whipping boy was “Mian Musharraf”, as he preferred to address the then Pakistani President, Pervez Musharraf. In the Bihar elections, Pakistan was the whipping boy.

Stalled talks The blow-hot-blow-cold approach of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) to Pakistan was in fact evident as soon as it assumed office in May 2014. Modi took the unprecedented step of inviting leaders from South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries for his swearing-in ceremony. Nawaz Sharif accepted the invitation at short notice, despite the reservations expressed by sections of Pakistan’s political and security establishment. But hopes of an early resumption of the normalisation process were dashed after the Prime Minster’s Office (PMO) decided at the last minute to call off Foreign Secretary-level talks in September. Modi suddenly objected to Pakistani diplomats in Delhi meeting with the separatist Hurriyat leadership from Kashmir prior to the talks. Previous governments, including the NDA government headed by A.B. Vajpayee, had not objected to the practice of consultations between the Hurriyat and Pakistan, which dates back to the mid-1990s. By calling off the Foreign Secretary-level talks, the NDA government signalled to Pakistan that the rules of engagement had changed after the new “iron man” Narendra Modi took over. On his visits to Bangladesh and the United Arab Emirates in 2015, Modi made certain comments on terrorism that Pakistan found objectionable.

Industrialists’ role Bilateral relations went downhill after the cancellation of the Foreign Secretary-level talks, and the situation deteriorated along the Line of Control (LoC). More than 500 ceasefire violations have been reported along the LoC since Modi assumed office. The Indian military has started using more heavy weaponry to target positions across the LoC. The Pakistani side has retaliated in kind. There were military casualties on both sides, but it was the innocent villagers on both sides of the border who bore the brunt of the violent exchange.

The crossfire has become subdued in the last couple of months after signs of a thaw in the bilateral relationship became visible. It is now being reported that Modi and Sharif had a “secret meeting” on the sidelines of the SAARC summit in Kathmandu in November 2014. The meeting was apparently arranged by an Indian industrialist who has connections with Sharif’s family. It may not have been a coincidence that the said businessman was present at Sharif’s farmhouse where the Indian Prime Minister dropped in at short notice. In July 2015, the two Prime Ministers met on the sidelines of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit in Ufa, Russia, where they discussed issues relating to border security and intelligence-sharing. The two sides agreed that their National Security Advisers (NSAs) should meet in September. But with the Indian side insisting that the agenda be restricted to terrorism-related issues and balking at the Pakistani demand for discussions on Kashmir and related issues, these talks were also cancelled at the eleventh hour. Pakistan’s NSA at the time, Sartaj Aziz, was categorically told that he should desist from meeting with representatives of the Hurriyat when he came to New Delhi for talks.

The two sides were armed with dossiers implicating each other in terrorist activities. India claimed that Islamabad was involved in terrorist activities on its territory. Aziz claimed that Islamabad had “irrefutable evidence” of Indian involvement in Balochistan.

Pakistan has been accusing India of using the issue of terrorism and “keeping the LoC hot” as a pretext to indefinitely delay the dialogue process. “The main purpose of any dialogue between India and Pakistan is to reduce tensions and restore trust as a first step towards normalisation. If the only purpose of the NSA-level talks is to discuss terrorism, then instead of increasing prospects of peace, it will only intensify the blame game and further vitiate the atmosphere,” said a statement from the Pakistani Foreign Ministry following the cancellation of Sartaj Aziz’s visit. Islamabad has been stressing that the substantive issue of Kashmir,along with easily solvable issues relating to the Sir Creek and Siachen disputes, also have to be discussed.

A climbdown After the Bihar election results were declared, Modi seemed to adopt the velvet-glove approach to Islamabad once more. The NSAs of the two countries, Ajit Doval and retired General Nasir Khan Janjua, along with their delegations had a secret meeting in Bangkok in early December. Janjua is reportedly close to the Pakistani Army Chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif. Many in Pakistan have viewed his recent appointment as NSA as a strengthening of the army’s hand in dealings with the Indian government. There was a feeling in the Pakistani army and intelligence establishment that Sharif was being rather too conciliatory towards India as he focussed on improving the country’s economy. Ajit Doval is also a former head of the intelligence service. The joint press release issued after the Bangkok meeting between the two NSAs said that their discussions covered “peace and security, terrorism, Jammu and Kashmir, and other issues, including tranquility along the LoC”. The meeting took place after a meeting between Modi and Sharif on the sidelines of the Paris Climate Talks in Paris on November 30.

After the NSA-level talks, it was announced that External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj would visit Islamabad to attend the “Heart of Asia” Conference. Swaraj told the media in the Pakistani capital, after attending the multilateral conference on Afghanistan, that New Delhi wants “ties between the two countries to be good and to move forward”. She announced that India and Pakistan would be resuming the “comprehensive bilateral dialogue” process that would include confidence-building measures (CBMs) and a host of other issues, including Jammu and Kashmir, Siachen, Tulbul and the Wullar Barrage project. She also announced the resumption of Foreign Secretary-level talks between the two governments on January 15. She said that Modi would attend the SAARC summit scheduled to be held in Islamabad in September 2016. The recent developments are a climbdown from the Modi government’s earlier hard-line stance that bilateral talks must initially be confined to terrorism.

Pressure from the U.S. The United States has also been working from behind the scenes to convince the two countries to start talking again on substantive issues. With American troops getting ready to withdraw from Afghanistan, the U.S. wants the cooperation of the Pakistani army. The last thing that the U.S. administration would want to see is tensions rising along the India-Pakistan border as it wants the Pakistani army to focus on curbing militancy along its border with Afghanistan. Pakistan retains considerable influence on the Afghan Taliban. The Pakistani army chief was in Kabul in late December to intensify efforts to get the Taliban and the Afghan government back at the negotiating table.

U.S. officials have said that during the Pakistan army chief’s recent visit to Washington, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry brought up the issue of Pakistan reviving talks with India. During Sharif’s Washington visit in October, U.S. President Barack Obama raised the issue of Pakistan developing new small tactical nuclear weapons systems. Pakistani officials have been saying that the weapons system is necessary for deterring India.

A joint statement issued after the visit said that “all sides” should act with restraint and work towards “strategic stability” in South Asia. Indian officials also admit that the tense relationship with Pakistan regularly cropped up during high-level meetings with their counterparts in the U.S. Both India and Pakistan have second strike nuclear capabilities and have big standing armies that can be counted among the 10 largest in the world. Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken recently said that there was a danger of a “large-scale conflict” erupting between the two sides. It is important, he said, that India and Pakistan should “find ways to communicate, to reduce tensions and ultimately to find a more cooperative relationship”.

Washington got India and Pakistan to sign on to the proposed TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) gas pipeline project in early December. Policymakers in Washington believe that there is a linkage between Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kashmir. The late Richard Holbrooke was initially designated as Obama’s Afghanistan-Pakistan-Kashmir envoy. The Obama administration was toying with the idea of letting Islamabad have a friendly government in place in Kabul. As a quid pro quo, Islamabad would be made to recognise the LoC as a permanent border. India seems amenable to such a scenario.

Modi in his speech to the Afghan Parliament called for greater regional cooperation to help the war-ravaged country get back on its feet. “When Afghanistan becomes a haven of peace and a hub for the flow of ideas, commerce, energy and investment in the region, we will all prosper together—that is why I hope that Pakistan will become the bridge between South Asia and Afghanistan and beyond,” he said.

He also tried to allay fears that India was engaged in a proxy war with Pakistan in Afghanistan. India was in Afghanistan “to contribute, not compete”, he said.

Negotiations on the border and a host of other issues will be carried out by India and Pakistan under the watchful eyes of the U.S. With the Islamic State becoming a force to contend with in Afghanistan, more dangerous threats are emerging in the Indian subcontinent. Now is the time for meaningful talks to start between Islamabad and New Delhi.

For starters, the Indian government could at least give the green signal for the resumption of official cricket matches between the two countries. And there should be less talk by BJP ideologues on the resurrection of the mythical concept of “Akhand Bharat”, encompassing all of South Asia, including Pakistan and Bangladesh.

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