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Spectacles often help leaders circumvent thorny issues, navigate potential minefields and work over and above any trust deficit to push through ‘big ideas’. Without the ideas, though, they remain that: spectacles, staged events catching headlines for a day, but lost in the stampede of fast-moving news cycles.
It is nearly two years since Narendra Modi has been prime minister. But despite spectacular moves ostensibly directed at normalising ties with Pakistan—starting off with an inspired move to invite Nawaz Sharif for his oath-taking ceremony in May 2014 and an equally bold decision to fly down to Lahore from Kabul on the Pakistani PM’s birthday on Christmas last year—no serious engagement between India and Pakistan has taken place. Detractors of Modi now describe his Pakistan policy as nothing more than a series of ‘spectacles’ bereft not only of ‘big ideas’, but also of the strategic vision and clarity needed for a sustained dialogue.
Policy planners in New Delhi blame acts of terror emanating from Pakistan as the main reason for this lack of progress in engagement. The latest roadblock, they say, was the January terror attack at the IAF’s Pathankot airbase. South Block now insists that terrorism will be the main focus of future India-Pakistan talks. But many observers raise questions about the efficacy of talks if future relations were to be seen mainly through the prism of security.
“Indo-Pak ties are likely to cause exaggerated hopes and fears of a breakthrough or a steep decline, when in reality limited change is likely.”
“A discussion or engagement on terrorism per se is not the problem. Terrorism also poses a big challenge for Pakistan,” says a senior Pakistani official. But linking any future engagement with Pakistan with progress made on the Pathankot attack is problematic. “This unifocal approach will not take us very far,” he warns.
Part of the problem stems from Modi’s confused waltz of a policy towards Pakistan, where every forward step he seems to take towards engaging the neighbour is followed by two quick ones to disengage. Critics have bemoaned this; at times supporters have followed suit.
Allowing the National Investigating Team from Pakistan to probe the Pathankot terror attack is perhaps a case in point. The government’s decision to give the visitors—including a key ISI official—access to the IAF airbase not only triggered a controversy and strident criticism from political opponents, but also befuddled BJP supporters bred on demonising Pakistan. The insistence soon after, that terrorism would be the central focus of future India-Pakistan talks, only complicated matters.
Modi’s surprising gambit to invite Sharif, along with other South Asian leaders, to his oath-taking ceremony in May 2014 was a success. But within a few months, when foreign secretaries of the two countries were to meet in Islamabad, he called it off. The reason? Disapproval of Pakistan high commissioner Abdul Basit’s meeting with the Hurriyat leadership. The fact that Basit was doing what his predecessors had done for years before crucial bilateral meetings seemed to have cut no ice with Modi. He was keen to send a stern message to Pakistan and his supporters in Kashmir, where assembly polls were scheduled weeks later, that such practices were unacceptable.
Subsequently, Modi met Sharif twice—at the SAARC summit in Nepal, and later at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting in Russia’s Ufa. It was agreed that national security advisor-level talks would restart. But the meeting in Delhi was called off at the last minute because India insisted that terrorism would be the only agenda.
“If you don’t have a clear policy to engage with Pakistan, other countries would target you.... But talks have to be held on all issues.”
In following months the PMs met twice. Modi had a brief tete-e-tete at the Paris Environment Summit with Sharif (resulting in the Bangkok meeting of Indo-Pak officials) and later, more spectacularly, when he decided to drop in on Sharif on his birthday in Lahore. But, within a week, the Pathankot terror attack happened. It has now led to a ‘suspension’ of further Indo-Pak talks.
Most observers would agree that terror attacks originating from Pakistan would have to end for an improvement in India-Pakistan relations. However, it is well-known that the easiest way to derail cross-border engagement—and crush the hopes that ride alongside—is simply by staging a cross-border attack. To call off all talks, therefore, unless India is positively assured by Pakistan that it would extirpate all acts of terror directed towards India, is perhaps unrealistic.
While many in the government, especially hardliners in Delhi, insist that if Pakistan does not agree to Indian terms it would hurt it more than India, they could be grossly wrong. A lack of engagement between India and Pakistan does raise serious concern beyond the region. And an armed confrontation deteriorating into a nuclear conflagration is still a worry for many Indian allies. That it is still an issue became clear when US President Barack Obama, at the end of the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington early this month, mentioned the dangers of a strained India-Pakistan relations. “We need to see progress in Pakistan and India” and to “make sure that as they develop military doctrines they are not continually moving in the wrong direction,” Obama had warned.
To many strategic thinkers, the return of this hyphenation between India and Pakistan in the western security calculus is because of the lack of any serious engagement between the neigbours. “If you don’t have a clear policy to engage with Pakistan, other countries are bound to target you,” says Srinath Raghavan of Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research. He argues that for a country that has ambitions to be counted as a responsible global player, India would have to take the initiative to ensure a sustained dialogue with Pakistan. “But such an engagement is only possible when a comprehensive dialogue is held on all issues. Not only on terrorism stemming from Pakistan.” Would India’s policy hawks heed this wisdom?
Southampton University history professor Ian Talbot tries to give a realistic assessment. “Indo-Pak relations are likely to cause a rollercoaster of emotions, with exaggerated hopes and fears of either a breakthrough, or a serious decline, when in reality limited change is likely,” says Talbot. He adds, “Neither country would wish to appear obstructive to improvement in western eyes, so there will be positive gestures from time to time, although underlying constraints would limit change.”
If indeed that is true, no spectacular development is to be expected in India-Pakistan relations. But, at least, a meaningful engagement, with hope for incremental improvement in ties, is better than a scenario where the two sides settle yet again to giving their blood-stained sabres a good rattle.