A Christmas course correction

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to make an unscheduled visit to Lahore signifies a major course correction in the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government’s Pakistan policy. After following an erratic, aggressive and unhelpful policy for close to a year and a half, New Delhi has started exhibiting a newfound consistency towards Islamabad as testified by three major constructive steps taken by it: the meeting of the National Security Advisers in Bangkok earlier this month, the visit of the External Affairs Minister to Islamabad thereafter, and now the impromptu visit of Mr. Modi to Lahore. They also briefly met in Paris, and the media reported a closed-door huddle in Kathmandu. These meetings will now be followed up with two more next month: meeting of Foreign Secretaries in Islamabad, and a potential meeting between the two Prime Ministers in Davos on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum. When it comes to course correction in national strategic priorities, it’s better late than never.

New Delhi’s new modus vivendi of dealing with Islamabad also indicates a clear preference for summit diplomacy over incrementalism, which by and large characterised the India-Pakistan dialogue process until now, perhaps suiting the Indian leader’s persona and style. The India-Pakistan relationship, in a sense, is ripe for summit diplomacy as well as bold initiatives since most of the outstanding issues have already been discussed in great detail over the last many years. The bureaucracies on both sides are clearly aware of what needs to be done in resolving each of those conflicts. What is needed now is the political will to implement some of those win-win solutions, and that is where bold initiatives such as this gain great significance.

Circumventing redlines

By choosing to engage in summit diplomacy with Pakistan, Mr. Modi has cleverly sidelined the Indian bureaucracy with deeply entrenched conventional views on Pakistan, virulent sections of the Indian electronic media which play a very negative role during pre-scheduled India-Pakistan meetings, and the anti-Pakistan elements within the Sangh Parivar. Mr. Modi’s new approach to Islamabad also implies an unsaid recognition in New Delhi that Pakistan is not the only fall guy when it comes to some of the outstanding issues between the two sides. For instance, both India and Pakistan need to share the blame for the intermittent ceasefire violations along the Line of Control and the International Border.

As all the meetings mentioned above were, or are scheduled to be, held outside India, Mr. Modi has been able to ensure adherence to his public commitment on not allowing Pakistani officials consult Kashmiri dissidents before talks with the Indian side. The question, then, is what Islamabad would do when a bilateral meeting has to be organised in New Delhi — which it would have to sometime next year. Will Islamabad insist on consulting the Kashmiri dissident leadership, something Nawaz Sharif has publicly committed to? How will New Delhi react to that? The two will need to find a way to get out of the commitment trap they jointly created.

Geopolitical imperatives

It would be incorrect to view this new willingness in New Delhi to reach out to Islamabad as solely due to the personal political preference of Mr. Modi. From a broader strategic point of view, a number of geopolitical developments may have influenced New Delhi’s decision to do so. Pakistan’s civilian establishment as well as its army have been upping the ante on the Kashmir front: while the Sharif government has been playing up Kashmir politically and diplomatically at various international fora, Rawalpindi has steadily been increasing India’s costs in Jammu and Kashmir. Moreover, the situation in Kashmir is going from bad to worse with a number of educated youngsters joining the ranks of militants and radicalisation on the rise among the disenchanted Kashmiris. Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the hawkish pro-Pakistan Kashmiri leader, argued in an interview last month that the gun remains an option in the resolution of the Kashmir dispute. Given this context, reaching out to Pakistan could potentially alleviate at least some of these worries.

Second, there are concerns in New Delhi, and indeed in Washington, about the increasing Chinese influence in the region and in Pakistan in particular, which, if unchecked, will be difficult for both the capitals to handle in the days ahead. China has increased its presence in Pakistan and has been attempting to engage in the Afghan reconciliation process. Both the capitals think that reaching out to Pakistan therefore would be useful in curbing the increasing Chinese influence in the region. This is also amply evident in India’s new approach to Afghanistan. Mr. Modi’s speech in the Afghan Parliament largely avoided any negative reference to Pakistan, perhaps to the dismay of the Afghans themselves, and more importantly, Modi went on to add, “I hope that Pakistan will become a bridge between South Asia and Afghanistan and beyond”. While a grand regional reconciliation between India, Pakistan and Afghanistan is easier said than done, the thinking behind such a policy is laudable, and indeed refreshing. Moreover, as The Hindu editorial (on December 26, 2015) correctly pointed out, “by making the journey from Kabul to Lahore, he has transformed Afghanistan from a battlefield between India and Pakistan into a facilitator of good relations.”

Is Rawalpindi on board?

No India-Pakistan rapprochement, however well-designed and well-intentioned, can survive Rawalpindi’s resistance. Hence the legitimate question to ask is whether or not the Pakistan Army is on board the new dialogue process choreographed by Mr. Modi and Mr. Sharif. New Delhi seems to assume that there is a tacit understanding between the Pakistan Army and Mr. Sharif on the revival of India-Pakistan ties given that Pakistan’s National Security Adviser Naseer Khan Janjua is a recently retired Corps Commander with access to the General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi.

However, since the Modi government has shown that it is capable of thinking out of the box on Pakistan, it should make a serious attempt at establishing back-channel contact with the powerful Pakistan Army. New Delhi has so far avoided engaging the Pakistani army directly despite considering the latter to be a major hindrance to normalising India-Pakistan relations. The GHQ is likely to be open to an interaction with New Delhi, which the latter has never sought, and the civilian establishment in Pakistan may not be too averse to it if done quietly and sensitively. Moreover, this practice is not unheard of in Pakistan: many visiting foreign officials, including the current Afghan President, call on the Pakistan Army chief in Rawalpindi. Doing so will ensure that the GHQ is on board any agreement the two sides would eventually reach. Moreover, if the GHQ has a sense of ownership vis-à-vis the reconciliation process, it may not easily disrupt the dialogue process.

Is Mr. Modi overplaying his hand?

By boldly reaching out to Pakistan, Mr. Modi is also taking a number of potential risks. For one, the highly personalised diplomacy with Pakistan makes him vulnerable to factors within Pakistan outside Mr. Sharif’s control. There is no guarantee that Pakistan-based terror organisations or factions within the Pakistani military establishment would not play spoilsport in the days ahead. Second, what options would Mr. Modi be left with should there be a repeat of 26/11? Even a repeat of the July terror attack in Gurdaspur, in which the attackers were traced back to Pakistan, could potentially weaken Mr. Modi’s search for peace with Islamabad. New Delhi seems to be under the assumption that by having Mr. Sharif — and the Pakistan Army through Gen. Janjua — on board would automatically rule out any terror attacks on India. How useful is that assumption?

The potential negative fallouts could also be personal, with adverse implications for Mr. Modi’s political legacy itself. Therefore, considering the high risks involved in the current engagement process with Pakistan, the Prime Minister and his team should carry forward their ongoing engagement at multiple levels, including by quietly engaging the Pakistan Army.

Both Mr. Modi and Mr. Sharif are acutely cognisant of how business ties can transform strategic relations. They should therefore frontload the current engagement process with enhanced commercial and trade relations between the two counties. In that sense, there is no need for us to be appalled by the quiet role, as reported by sections of the media, played by certain businessmen in bringing the two Prime Ministers together, both in Kathmandu and Lahore. Here, to my mind, the admirable end justifies the informal means.

Finally, the negative reaction from the Congress party to Mr. Modi’s engagement with Pakistan is a classic case of sour grapes. The BJP, for sure, was obstructively critical of New Delhi’s peace process with Pakistan when the Congress-led coalition was in power. That was unfortunate. But then, unlike in the case of Mr. Modi, his party did not wholeheartedly support Dr. Manmohan Singh’s Pakistan policy either. So if Dr. Singh could not gather enough support within his own party to take his dialogue process on Kashmir, for instance, with Pakistan to its logical conclusion, why blame Mr. Modi when he is only doing what Dr. Singh should have done but could not?

(Happymon Jacob is Associate Professor of Disarmament Studies at the Centre for International Politics, Organisation and Disarmament, School of International Studies, JNU.)

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Printable version | Apr 10, 2021 3:38:41 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/a-christmas-course-correction/article8037566.ece

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