Comprehending the intended policy of India’s present regime led by Narendra Modi is no rocket science. It is evident to the most inert of minds that Modi wants to keep Pakistan at an “arm’s length”.
However, the foreign policy is less about rhetoric and more about the reality on the ground.
During his noisy election campaign in 2014, Modi boasted about his ‘56 inch chaati’ (56 inch chest); it, however, appears that the embarrassing defeats in the Delhi and Bihar elections may have reduced his chest size by a quite few inches.
Those are the facts of his domestic turf.
I’m sure that his 30-plus trips abroad as prime minister may have led him to realise that a country with serious border disputes, territorial conflicts and political squabbles with its immediate neighbours, cannot become a global player without attempting reconciliation.
Those are the facts of the international turf.
Besides talking about “good governance” (“acchey din”) and economic prosperity, Modi also told his voters that they should choose a strong leader to deal effectively with Pakistan.
In this particular blog, I will take you through the tumultuous relationship of India and Pakistan, and examine the forces that have led the two countries engage in hostilities during the worst of times and offer meek amity during the best of times.
To begin with, we must acknowledge the role of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in fostering acrimonious relations with Pakistan. In order to satisfy the aspirations of their voters, the Hindu nationalist BJP could not afford to go “soft” towards Pakistan. That, however, is all about electoral arithmetic. Vote bank politics and domestic compulsions.
That’s also perhaps why Modi’s policy towards Pakistan was seriously inconsistent.
After Modi’s ascendancy to power in May 2014, his official position on all important issues hardened in India. But the fact is that a country’s foreign policy seldom works on rhetoric and media frenzy.
There are some realities of immediate neighbourhood and strategic cooperation which even the drivers of conflict and hate mongers cannot wish away or ignore.
After initial enmity, recently the two countries have become more amicable. India’s External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj visited the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. She attended the fifth “Heart of Asia” ministerial conference, aimed to build a stable and peaceful Afghanistan.
She met Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and her Pakistani counterpart, Sartaj Aziz. The meetings were aimed at “taking forward stalled bilateral relations”. A joint statement was issued to carry forward the official dialogue process.
Ms Swaraj is the first Indian foreign minister to visit Pakistan since 2012. She also told journalists in Islamabad that Narendra Modi will visit Pakistan early next year to participate in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit.
It seems that the peace process has been set in motion despite the fact that for months the official dialogue had stalled. The foreign secretary and national security advisor (NSA) level talks were cancelled on flimsy grounds, as the Indian government relied on its vibrant, corporate and patriotic media to create noise to dictate the country’s foreign policy.
At that time, it suited Modi and his hawkish image.
It is imperative that we ask: What has changed so dramatically since then that the NSAs of Pakistan and India held secret talks in Bangkok on December 6th?
What made them issue a joint statement?
What made them discuss a range of issues including “peace and security, tranquillity over the Line of Control (LoC), terrorism, and Jammu and Kashmir”?
How did India agree to include Jammu and Kashmir in the joint statement?
The ‘candid’ meeting between Pakistan’s NSA Lieutenant General (retired) Nasser Khan Janjua and his Indian counterpart Ajit Doval took place in Bangkok after an earlier meeting in Paris between Nawaz and Modi on the side-lines of the climate change summit. That meeting in Paris is believed to have broken the ice!
Moreover, I believe that the two countries could not have engaged in such cordial affairs if they hadn’t been nudged in the right direction by certain world powers. According to credible circles, the United States and United Kingdom are believed to have pushed the two leaders to make a renewed attempt by resuming dialogue on all outstanding issues between them.
Also, it appears that ‘back channel diplomacy’ is becoming an essential component of the India-Pakistan engagement. During such processes, there is a focus on moving forward when no dialogue is officially taking place.
Historically too, Pakistan-India relations remained a mix of ‘toxins’ and ‘good memories’. There is injection of politics of hatred followed by unprecedented bonhomie. There is politics of intolerance followed by hugs and handshakes. There is media frenzy followed by friendly cricket matches.
The truth is that at this point, the people of the two countries are tired of the inconsistencies in state-level relations.
Should we be sceptical of the renewed zeal in establishing good relations or can we finally afford to be hopeful?
Most Pakistanis in the government and opposition believe that India’s growing toxic chauvinism and nationalism is the main impediment in the relations between the two countries. From India’s perspective, however, Pakistan’s lack of will to effectively deal with terrorism is the real problem.
While we’re talking about Pak-India relations, it’d be foolish to ignore the 68-year-old elephant in the room – Kashmir.
From Kashmir’s perspective, there can be no progress unless the issues are resolved in accordance with the aspirations of the people of Kashmir.
This makes the entire story very complex. Where the two countries should begin is the million dollar question.
India and Pakistan had moved forward in the past even if they were mere “baby steps”. Some essential confidence building measures (CBMs) were put in place, which included Kashmir-centric CBMs like the reopening of trans-Kashmir Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road, trade links, cultural exchanges, media tours, etcetera.
After some respite during periods of amity, the soldiers of both nations repeatedly violated the ceasefire agreement on the Line of Control (LoC). Due to this, tensions rose again. Sections of the media, especially in India, ran non-stop anti-Pakistan debates and discussions to create a hostile atmosphere. There was a very strong anti-Pakistan rhetoric.
In context of the renewed Pakistan-India bonhomie, there is an opportunity for both to move forward on Kashmir-centric CBMs.
However, given Modi’s image and brand of politics, it is very difficult to imagine a level of political comfort between him and Nawaz. That comfort only existed between Pervez Musharraf , Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Dr Manmohan Singh.
That being said, it is essential for India and Pakistan to realise that their friendly relations suit Kashmir. Any serious engagement between the two countries is in the interest of Kashmir.
Here, I must offer a word of caution – the CBMs in themselves do not offer a political solution. They must only be seen as stepping stones to resolve the main political dispute.
On the home turf, the bitter experiences of the last 68 years are rightly making public representatives sceptical about the latest Pakistan-India engagement. They are not averse to the dialogue process per se, but insist that it should be sincere and meaningful.
As for Kashmir, all parties favour engagement between the two nuclear neighbours but it must be realised that engagement for the sake of engagement would yield no tangible results on the ground.
Pakistan and India both need to do more than exchange few handshakes and smiles.