Journalist | Writer | Analyst
28 May 2014
Three hours. That’s how long it took Narendra Modi, then India’s Prime Minister-elect, to reciprocate Nawaz Sharif’s congratulatory telephone call on May 16 with a return call inviting the Pakistani Prime Minister to attend his swearing-in ceremony. Sharif apparently assured Modi that he would come but said he would announce his decision after consulting all political parties and stakeholders on his side.
For both leaders, the decision to choreograph a meeting in this manner represented a giant leap of faith, an act of risk-taking and courage that provides India and Pakistan with yet another chance to move their cursed relationship forward.
The fact that the process of consultation at Nawaz Sharif’s end took five days underscores the complex set of constraints the Pakistani PM faces as he seeks to improve ties with India. Modi, on the other hand, will encounter little resistance given the number of seats he won for the Bharatiya Janata Party in an election campaign fought largely in his name. His bold decision to break the ice with Pakistan on day one of his Prime Ministership sent a message to both the BJP-RSS and to hardliners within the Indian security-diplomatic establishment that he did not intend to be a prisoner of his past rhetoric.
Tuesday’s meeting saw the two sides raise what they consider to be core issues. For India, this is the slow pace of the Mumbai terrorist attack trial and the use of Pakistani territory by anti-India terrorist groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba. For the Pakistanis, the Kashmir issue continues to remain central, as does Siachen. While these subjects are politically contentious, trade, the Sir Creek dispute (for which a draft agreement is there for the taking) and people-to-people contact constitute relatively easy deliverables for both countries.
Though Foreign Secretary Sujata Singh tried her best not to reveal too much about what transpired in the meeting between the two Prime Ministers, she did tell reporters: “The meeting was very constructive. Both sides were trying to address each other’s concerns … We know what each other’s concerns are. They know what our concerns are and they were trying to address them.”
Proof of Modi’s satisfaction with the assurances Nawaz Sharif gave him on the terrorism question is provided by the fact that the meeting ended with the two foreign secretaries being tasked with exploring the contours of a renewed dialogue process. In doing so, the new government has managed to move the bilateral ball a bit closer towards the goal of normalization than even Manmohan Singh was able to do in his last year.
How quickly the Ministry of External Affairs starts working on this process will provide a concrete indicator of just how serious Modi is about the new opening. Last September, when Manmohan Singh and Nawaz Sharif met, they asked their respective DGMOs to meet soon and end all violations of the ceasefire along the Line of Control. The fact that the DGMOs met a full three months later was symptomatic of the inability of the two principals to get their own establishments on board.
Nawaz Sharif may still be constrained but it is in India’s interest to pro-actively help craft a new architecture for renewed dialogue with Pakistan. Terrorism emanating from Pakistan remains a key concern. Yet, there is little sense in holding a bilateral relationship from which India can harvest incremental gains hostage to goals the dysfunctional Pakistani state is increasingly unable to meet. The solution to the threat of terrorism lies in India strengthening its border management, intelligence capabilities, and policing, not in limiting its diplomatic options.
The Manmohan Singh government recognized this reality and made some headway on both the internal security and bilateral front. But it remained a prisoner to the Congress party’s lack of political confidence. Nawaz Sharif had actually invited Manmohan Singh to attend his inauguration ceremony last year but the then Prime Minister’s political advisors urged him not to go. The irony is that the man and party whose criticism the Congress feared most ended up ensuring the presence of the Pakistani Prime Minister at his own inauguration.
By all accounts, Nawaz Sharif seems keen on the resumption of back-channel talks as well as the elevation of dialogue on each country’s core issues to the level of politically-empowered Special Representatives. The Modi government should look at these proposals carefully, especially since they would allow both sides to eventually build on the progress already made by Satinder Lambah and Tareq Aziz during their back-channel contacts from 2004 to 2006.
If Modi has shown statesmanship in managing the upside of the relationship, the real test will come when there is a downside in the form of a terrorist provocation inside India or against Indian assets in Afghanistan by the Lashkar e Taiba or some other Pakistan-based group. His own partymen and a jingoistic media will likely lead the charge, demanding some sort of muscular response. Despite the fact that he regularly attacked Manmohan Singh and his team for being weak-kneed, there is more for Modi to learn from the measured manner in which the UPA government handled these crises than from the military deployment ordered by the Vajpayee government in the wake of the December 2001 attack on Parliament.