Imagine the scene: a buoyant Prime Minister Narendra Modi getting into his car after his speech in the Afghan Parliament, which India built, the ultimate symbol of the triumph of democracy over centuries of internecine warfare. In his less-than-35-minute speech he urged the Taliban to join the peace process, and Pakistan and Iran to unite in trust and cooperation, saying India was there to contribute not compete — and was applauded no less than 62 times, more applause than speech. It left Afghan elders teary eyed. That is when Mr. Modi asks for his mobile phone and makes the call to Nawaz Sharif. The call is a brief one and Mr. Modi is easily persuaded to make an impromptu decision that will lead to an astonishing sub-continental moment of sorts. By the time call is over, the cavalcade reaches its next pit stop. That is when the entourage knows where it is going that afternoon and why it is going there, and a scramble ensues to see if there is anything in the plane that could be given as gift to the Prime Minister’s sudden hosts. The search yields nothing worthwhile, leaving it to the mandarins to figure out what to send through appropriate channels later.
It is an empty-handed visit yet both Prime Ministers are bearing heavy invisible gifts in a journey without maps. Soon after the jhappi on the tarmac, and Prime Minister Sharif leads Prime Minister Modi into a helicopter for a 15-minute ride to his homestead, the message is somewhat deeper than the medium that conveys it. Imagine the Pakistani Prime Minister setting aside more than four hours on one of the busiest days of his life, a day in which he was to preside over the marriage of his granddaughter, to chaperone instead the Prime Minister of India for a quasi-summit without outcome, where no joint statement would be forthcoming as markers for the future. He remarks as much to his guest: that he has staked his political future on this new engagement with India.
Equally on display is the Prime Minister’s ability to grasp the nettle. By touching the feet of Mr. Sharif’s mother he conveys something to Pakistan no joint statement ever can: here is a nationalist prime minister of India in a humanising scene.Bangkok, behind the scenes
What explains this new bonhomie? Does this have a future? Is this process durable? How do we guard against surprises? Answers lie partly in Mr. Modi’s character. He is flinty in his persistence. As this newspaper has reported, he has cold-called Mr. Sharif repeatedly, almost badgering him with his Modi-style outreach. Everything seemed to finally fall into place in Bangkok, where over four hours the National Security Advisers (NSA) met along with the Foreign Secretaries and a core team of strategists, a meeting that came through backchannel efforts. It was an India-Pakistan meeting like none other. Here was Lt.-Gen. (retd.) Naseer Khan Janjua, a representative of the Deep State, who had served in Swat, Balochistan, Quetta and as head of the National Defence University, and a former spymaster, known in Pakistan as Ajit “Devil”, in a situation where no arguments are traded. With India’s counterterrorism point person, former director, Intelligence Bureau, Asif Ibrahim, on the table, the Indian side objectively laid out its concerns and expectations “more in practical security terms and less in diplomatic terms”. Mr. Janjua responded positively, saying “the past is past” and Islamabad’s intention was to “move forward”. That meeting apparently established the basis to work together, a template of sorts, defining both the steps and the goals. The underpinnings: the NSA-level talks which Mr. Sharif has long been pushing and which was not finding takers in the previous government in Delhi, would bring the talks closer to the centres of power both in Islamabad and Delhi, and provide a surer way of testing intentions.
Mr. Janjua and Mr. Doval were agreed in Bangkok that it would not be difficult to assess the intentions of the other. Given the devices at their disposal, the deployments, the continuous monitoring, it would be easy enough to determine if adequate efforts are being made to curtail or stop infiltration and disrupt communications among the terrorists, for example, or even maintain peace and tranquillity along the gun embankments on the LoC. The question of what Pakistan does to dismantle the infrastructure or put it out of business comes later, much later. After the Bangkok talks, for instance, there have been no reports about firing along the Line of Control (LoC). Thus about a week after the principles of the engagement were in place, Mr. Modi was telling the Combined Commanders’ Conference aboard INS Vikramaditya that India was engaging Pakistan to “try to turn the course of history… There are many challenges and barriers on the path. But the effort is worth it, because the peace dividends are huge and the future of our children is at stake. We will test their intentions to define the path ahead”. It was a speech the significance of which was to be underlined at Lahore, the path to which was defined at the Afghan Parliament as well.
There is a larger context: in the past, backchannels have brought a broad-contour understanding between the two countries on a comprehensive outcome that both sides were privately more or less comfortable with. The lack of outcome is a factor of the wild card which makes its way onto the table in unpredictable ways. This engagement comes as the Obama administration wanes, the West’s engagement with Iran changes for the positive, West Asia remains in turmoil, Afghanistan readies to engage more with us both on security issues as well as economic aspects, and the Chinese footprint deepens in the region. If India were to retain a leadership role in the region, can it be done without addressing Pakistan?