Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Christmas Day surprise is still reverberating around the world. Besides the Congress party, the Shiv Sena and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, most people have welcomed the development. Notwithstanding the fact that the two countries share a troubled relationship, most Indians would like to live in peace and amity with their western neighbour.
The PM went to Lahore to wish his counterpart “Happy Birthday” in person. Significantly, he went on the birthday of another man, Atal Behari Vajpayee, who initiated the peace dialogue with Pakistan at the sidelines of the 13th SAARC summit in Islamabad in January 2004. Modi has accepted Sharif’s invitation to participate in the 19th SAARC summit, also to be held in Islamabad, and so you can be sure that between now and the time of the summit, expected to be in September, there will be a significant stepping up of the India-Pakistan engagement.
The surprise Lahore gesture may be symbolic, but it has huge value in both India and Pakistan. For it indicates that both leaders are significantly personally invested in the process, with all the attendant risks this entails. Second, it is a signal that India and Pakistan intend to work on a cooperative agenda in Afghanistan, instead of a competitive one. The PM declared as much in his speech to the Afghan legislators while inaugurating the new building of the Afghan Parliament built with Indian help.
The India-Pakistan agenda is huge. The announcement came just after Modi sent a strong message of support to Afghanistan in its struggle against the Taliban and cross-border terrorism, without naming Pakistan. However, he did note that just as India was seeking to develop the Iranian port of Chah Bahar to enhance connectivity with Afghanistan, it was also hoping that “Pakistan will become a bridge between South Asia and Afghanistan and beyond”.
If India is to become a geo-economic powerhouse, it has to set its Pakistan house in order. Given its strategic location, Pakistan blocks our path to Afghanistan and Central Asia. Allied with China, it becomes a significant adversary. With all three countries being nuclear weapons’ states, an open state of war is unlikely, but skirmishing on the borders is entirely possible. While this does not amount to an existential threat to us, it does significantly constrain us in terms of opportunity costs. Further, it ties up vast resources in wasteful military expenditures. Both Prime Ministers have made the promise of economic change as the central item in their respective election campaigns and they know that their next election will depend on their performance on the economic front, rather than the state of India-Pakistan relations. So, their common challenge is to go beyond the roadblocks and free up the South Asian economic space for normal trade and commerce.
Modi had surprised the world when he had invited Nawaz Sharif, along with other SAARC leaders for his inauguration in 2014. However, efforts to improve India-Pakistan relations got mired in controversy and India called off the Foreign Secretary level talks that were scheduled to be held in New Delhi in August 2014 because the Pakistanis insisted on meeting Hurriyat leaders. Relations plummeted as firing across the International Border in Jammu intensified, along with terrorist strikes on police and military targets.
The two leaders met again at the sidelines of the SAARC summit in November 2014 and held brief talks in Dhulikhel during the retreat. According to TV anchor Barkha Dutt, they had a secret one-hour meeting in Kathmandu as well. Subsequently, the two Prime Ministers met at Ufa at the sidelines of the SCO summit in July 2015 and agreed to resume talks on “all outstanding issues”. However, differences on operationalising the dialogue derailed the first set of talks that were to be held between the NSAs of the two sides. But the broad lines of agreement were visible in Modi acceptance of the SAARC invite.
Subsequently, the two countries decided that it would be best to discreetly explore the issues and then move forward. The two Prime Ministers used their 15-minute meeting at the sidelines of the Climate Conference in Paris in November to push the envelope and this led to the NSA-level dialogue taking place in Bangkok on 6 December.
Since then, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has visited Islamabad for the Heart of Asia Conference and now on 15 January next month, the long-delayed Foreign Secretary level talks will be held.
Modi and Sharif will no doubt take the opportunity of the Lahore visit to firm up plans for the future. There should be no doubt that wishing Nawaz on his birthday was just the subtext of a larger India-Pakistan agenda.
Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi