Ever since his one-on-one interaction with his Pakistan counterpart Nawaz Sharif on the sidelines of the SCO summit at Ufa in July, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been quite upfront about steering India’s approach to Pakistan and injecting a new level of decisiveness in dealing with what has been a perpetual foreign policy challenge for us. His “unofficial” stopover at Lahore on 25 December to personally greet Nawaz Sharif on his birthday, sends out the message that just as the Indian Prime Minister was in command on the Indian side, his civilian counterpart on the other side should also show up as an equally confident decision maker. There is an operational flavour about the way Modi has handled a delicate segment of India’s foreign policy and this has to be welcomed.
Without deflecting from the Indian stand that Pakistan will be judged by its commitment on terrorism — Modi reiterated this soon after a joint statement emerging out of Sushma Swaraj-Sartaz Aziz talks at Islamabad on 9 December had already announced the agreement of the two countries on a resumption of the composite dialogue at the Foreign Secretary level — the Indian PM has sent out a message to the international community that India was otherwise quite willing to talk to Pakistan.
It is good that India has, after a period of ambiguity, also demonstrated a perceptive geo-political understanding of the importance of sustaining India-Afghan relations in the backdrop of a clear attempt of the Pakistan army not to let India dig in its heels in Afghanistan as a regional stakeholder. PM Modi’s address at Kabul on 25 December — on the inauguration of the new Parliament complex built by India there — underscored the historical depth of the relationship of love and peace between Indians and the Afghans, warned that terror and violence cannot be the instrument for shaping Afghanistan’s future, and reminded the world that “India is in Afghanistan to contribute, not to compete”.
At Ufa the two Prime Ministers had agreed on an NSA-level meeting in New Delhi to discuss issues connected to terrorism including the ways and means of expediting the Mumbai case trial. Their joint statement did say that the two sides “are prepared to discuss all outstanding issues”, but refrained from mentioning Kashmir. It had all looked fine from India’s point of view till the whole process got into a predictable flux on the eve of the 25 August meeting between the two NSAs, because of Pakistan’s move to invite Hurriyat leaders for a meeting with Sartaz Aziz, the visiting Pak NSA, obviously with the intention of getting the Kashmir issue smuggled into the agenda through the back door. After India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj set a deadline for Pakistan to declare that there would be no meeting with Hurriyat — as this was against the Simla Agreement — Pakistan reacted by calling off the talks.
There is no gainsaying the fact that there was pressure on Nawaz Sharif from the Pak army not to let India succeed in putting terrorism on top of the India-Pak agenda. It is to be seen if the Indian Prime Minister’s gesture of reaching out to Nawaz Sharif on the latter’s birthday through a stopover at Lahore on way back home from Kabul and the earlier effort of Sushma Swaraj to reach out to Nawaz Sharif’s mother and strike a personal note with him during her visit to Islamabad in early December, can in any way strengthen the hands of the civilian leadership in Pakistan in the matter of opening a new chapter on the India-Pak front.
PM Modi’s ‘unofficial’ stopover at Lahore on 25 December to personally greet Nawaz Sharif on his birthday, sends out the message that just as the Indian Prime Minister was in command on the Indian side, his civilian counterpart on the other side should also show up as an equally confident decision maker.
Any observer of the history of India-Pak talks can see that post the “war on terror”, three distinct parameters would determine their prospects — the reality of the Pak army being the final arbiter of the foreign and defence policy of its country, the fact that in spite of the “war on terror” the Pak army was quite unabashed about using faith-based militancy against India as an instrument of state policy, and the obvious dependence of the US on the Pak army for protecting American interests in Afghanistan in a situation of ascendency of Islamic radicals symbolised by the ISIS.
The Pak army has already stepped in, after Ufa, to put a general as NSA in place of the civilian — Sartaz Aziz — and this gives it a direct hand in determining the course of any future talks. It is not without significance that General Sharif, the Pak army chief, had meanwhile made a trip to Washington where he presumably sorted out the US-Pak strategy on Afghanistan to his satisfaction.
Prime Minister Modi has to maintain the US-India grid on the question of dealing with Afghanistan and the threat of Islamic radicals on one hand and get the world community to see through the Pak mischief of using the militant outfits under its control to keep targeting India, on the other. The India-Pak joint statement, accepting the restoration of a composite dialogue that includes the issue of Kashmir has crucially upheld the Indian stand that the question of terrorism came first including the matter of expediting the 26/11 trial and that the India-Pak talks would be bilateral, thereby implicitly confirming the line that there was no place for Hurriyat or any other “third party” there.
It is important that India deals with Pakistan keeping in view three parameters that have remained unchanged — Pak army’s vengeful attitude towards India, particularly after the liberation of Bangladesh, likelihood of continuation of cross-border terrorism against India as the Havana declaration had given the Pakistan army the ground for a standing denial of any hand in such attacks, and the fact that India-Pak relations were not a matter of people-to-people contact since they were conditioned essentially by the Pakistan army’s India policy.
It is a smart move on the part of India not to shun India-Pak talks, but also not yield on her national interests. One learning from the Vajpayee initiative of 2001 is that the government might, for tactical reasons, do a few things behind the curtain, but on matters of national security and international relations, the policy line had to remain transparent.
India need not feel unsettled by the fresh act of the Pakistan envoy here meeting the Hurriyat leaders, so long as their exclusion from the bilateral talks was honoured.
The visit of Sushma Swaraj to Pakistan has, no doubt, restored the case for India-Pak dialogue after the process had run into a serious disruption in August last. However, an idea of which way this relationship would proceed will, sooner than later, find reflection in the nature of engagement India secures in Afghanistan, as a regional player.
D.C. Pathak is a former Director, Intelligence Bureau.