Journalist | Writer | Analyst
August 24, 2014
Six days after India abruptly announced the cancellation of talks with Pakistan over the issue of Pakistani diplomats meeting Kashmiri separatist leaders, the manner in which the decision was taken and communicated remains something of “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”. When Churchill used that memorable phrase for Russia, he added: “But perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.” Sadly, Narendra Modi’s decision does not even offer the solace of rationality. Consider the facts.
On July 23, the ministry of external affairs announced that foreign secretary Sujata Singh and her counterpart in Islamabad had spoken to each other and agreed to meet on August 25 to discuss the resumption of a regular dialogue process. Curiously, four days before that decision was reached, the Pakistani high commissioner in Delhi, Abdul Basit met with leaders from both the Gilani and Mirwaiz factions of the Hurriyat on the sidelines of an iftar function at the high commission. Newspapers in Srinagar carried stories about the meeting, leaving no doubt about the political character of the conversations that took place.
If Modi was keen to break with the precedent set by previous governments, the MEA should have quietly told the Pakistani side that these sorts of meetings between its high commissioner and Hurriyat leaders should no longer take place. Instead, the PM and his advisors slept on this supposedly key issue for three weeks. It was only on the morning of August 18 — nearly a month after Basit had hosted the Hurriyat, and on the very day he was set to meet Shabir Shah — that the government woke up and asked the MEA to tell the Pakistanis to either choose dialogue with India or the Hurriyat. As luck would have it, Sujata Singh managed to get Basit on the phone only at 3.15 pm — by which time Shabir Shah had already entered the Pakistan High Commission accompanied by a gaggle of TV cameras. What followed was inevitable. The Pakistan-Hurriyat meeting went ahead; and the India-Pakistan talks got cancelled — both negative outcomes for India.
A smarter approach would have been to give Islamabad enough time to realize the depth of the new government’s concerns and to slowly but quietly escalate the Indian position all the way to prime minister Nawaz Sharif, if a favourable response was not forthcoming. A quiet resolution would have allowed Sharif to accommodate India’s concerns without losing face at a time when rightist political rivals (and the military establishment) are trying to weaken him. Who knows, Sharif might have asked Basit to rush to Islamabad for “consultations” on the day the Hurriyat leaders were coming, thereby ensuring the meeting never took place. The foreign secretaries could then have met as scheduled on August 25. Certainly, given the personal rapport that Modi said he struck with Sharif, it is surprising that no attempt was even made to pursue this quieter, more effective approach.
A 2013 report by Nisha Taneja and her colleagues at the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations estimates that the true trade potential with Pakistan lies somewhere between US$10.9 billion and US$20.8 billion, with Indian exports making up the lion’s share. The current official trade figure is around US$2 billion. Realising the potential involves Pakistan making it easier for Indian goods to enter Pakistan via the land route and granting India non-discriminatory market access (NDMA). New Delhi too needs to work harder on dismantling non-tariff barriers that Pakistani exporters have long complained about ever since India granted Pakistan most-favoured nation status in 1996. The September 2012 trade normalization roadmap was meant to have been finalized in March 2014. However, some Indian businessmen close to the BJP asked Nawaz Sharif to wait till the new government was in place before granting India NDMA. And since the election, there has been no progress yet.
Now that India has backed itself into a corner on the dialogue front, is there a way to move at least the trade agenda ahead with Pakistan? Two upcoming Pakistani trade exhibitions in Mumbai and Delhi provide a small window for the Modi government to be proactive. Apart from ensuring that customs clearances for Pakistani exhibitors are granted smoothly, sending Sitharaman to inaugurate the Pakistani mega lifestyle exhibitioncum-cultural programme at Pragati Maidan on September 11 would send a positive signal and may even set the stage for the two prime ministers to meet in New York at the end of September. But the longer the Hurriyat controversy is allowed to linger, the more difficult it will be for the Modi government to renew the promise with which it began its tenure.