In March this year, members of the Pakistani establishment laid out the red carpet for an unusual visitor. The gentleman, who will not be named, was an envoy of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an overseas supporter of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and was said to be carrying a message from Narendra Modi. As a result, the visitor was hosted to lunch by the Foreign Affairs Adviser Sartaj Aziz and the Foreign Office India desk, met with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s key adviser Tariq Fatemi, and was even invited to the Army General Headquarters.
The message he carried was simple: that once elected, the BJP government would pursue talks and push business engagement with Pakistan. He indicated that an invitation would be sent shortly after Mr. Modi took over, to set the ball rolling. There was, however, a rider. If there was a terror attack, said the RSS envoy, one like Mumbai 26/11 that could be traced back to Pakistan, their hands would be tied. A counter-attack on some part of Pakistan-controlled territory would be inevitable.
Buoyant relations Despite the rough rider, Pakistan’s leadership was pleased by the reach out. There are many reasons why Pakistan’s elite and military establishment, the two constituencies that decide policy on India, looked favourably towards Mr. Modi’s win. To begin with, a BJP government has proven easier to deal with in the past, and less worried about ‘domestic opinion’ and a tough opposition than the Congress has been. After all, former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was able to invite General Pervez Musharraf to the Agra summit less than two years after the two countries fought the Kargil war, when Pakistan’s stock was at its lowest in India. Second, the BJP government was able to ‘deliver’ more than the Congress did. Much in the way the Indian establishment has found it easier to get concrete outcomes from Pakistan’s military rulers, Pakistan’s establishment believes that ‘right-wingers’ deliver what moderates in India are unable to do. Finally, while they may not openly admit to it, Pakistan’s establishment welcomes Mr. Modi and the BJP as it helps keep its own constituencies in check with fears of a right-wing ‘Hindu nationalist’ government next door.
Mr. Modi was as good as the envoy’s word, and, within a day of winning the elections, had >proffered the invitation to all SAARC neighbours . The invitation went down in Indian history, and became a part of global parlance, for the boldness of the move and the all-round praise it received. Many were surprised but everyone lauded the initiative calling it a masterstroke, a strategy with vision.
The Prime Minister’s subsequent talks with Mr. Sharif, while short, made for good optics in both countries, especially given the follow-up letters between the two Prime Ministers and the gifts that were exchanged: a sari and a shawl for their mothers. Relations were so buoyant that when an Indian journalist appeared in Islamabad and wanted to know what the reaction to Mr. Modi’s visit to Pakistan would be, officials were convinced that he too was an envoy carrying a message from the Indian Prime Minister. The journalist, V.P. Vaidik, didn’t just get to meet all of Pakistan’s top leadership; he was even cleared to meet with 26/11 mastermind, a man on America’s most-wanted list, Hafiz Saeed. Access to Mr. Saeed, as any Pakistani journalist would tell you, is strictly monitored by the Inter-Services Intelligence itself, and any visit to his home in Lahore would need the highest security clearance. Even if the Pakistani government was mystified by his mission, they were too delighted by the prospect of Mr. Modi’s visit to say so.
Mr. Modi continued to surprise Pakistan’s government, but in a good way, for the next two months. He had chosen not to react when the Indian mission in Herat was attacked just before Mr. Sharif’s visit, despite indicators that the ISI-backed Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) was behind it. When he visited Srinagar in July, he didn’t mention ceasefire violations along the Line of Control during his address to jawans. And his government didn’t react when, at a press conference, Pakistani High Commissioner Abdul Basit ruled out prosecuting LeT founder Mr. Saeed for the Mumbai attacks on the basis of India’s evidence. Instead, diplomats and officials worked hard at bilateral proposals between the two countries. Trade concessions were on the anvil, selling much-needed power to Pakistan was a deliverable, and LNG and fuel pipelines were being discussed.
It wasn’t just the Pakistan government that was surprised; most in the Indian government and many of Mr. Modi’s supporters were also surprised that the tough-talking prime ministerial candidate had now been replaced by the subcontinental leader who spoke of defeating the common enemy of poverty, and of rejecting talk of “killing and dying.” The Prime Minister’s strategy was taking shape, and his attention on the neighbourhood was giving it focus. In the past three months, Mr. Modi and his External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj have spent more time visiting and speaking about the region than perhaps any previous government has. Mr. Modi travelled to Bhutan and Nepal, while also sending Ms Swaraj to Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar. In the next few months, she will also visit Sri Lanka. Mr. Modi is expected to meet with Mr. Sharif once again in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. Therefore, when it was announced that the Foreign Secretaries would meet in Islamabad on August 25, it seemed in line with Mr. Modi’s grander strategy of squiring a new future for the entire neighbourhood, one that would be launched at the SAARC summit in November in Kathmandu.
Cancelling talks As a result, the decision to >cancel those talks over the Pakistan High Commissioner’s talks with Hurriyat leaders has raised a very big question mark over more than just those talks. If the Foreign Secretaries were meeting to lay the ground for the Modi-Sharif talks in New York next month, does that mean the Prime Ministers will not meet? Have the trade deals and the energy plans discussed so far, not to mention the entire peace process, been cancelled? Will three months of visible strategy, and all the meetings and attempts to reach out in the months preceding the elections be overturned by this decision? Should Bangladesh and Nepal, who have critical bilateral agreements with India on land, power and water, due to be cleared in the next few months, worry about a similarly abrupt reversal in decisions? Finally, which is the version of Mr. Modi’s foreign policy vision that is the real template for the world to engage with?
“Mystify, mislead and surprise the enemy,” wrote Chinese warrior Sun Tzu in The Art of War . With his move, Mr. Modi has certainly done all three, even giving the impression that he still regards Pakistan as an enemy to defeat and not as a neighbour he wishes to resolve issues with. Sun Tzu may have other things to say about a policy that mystifies and confounds everyone else as well. Surprise in such cases can at best only be a tactic in foreign policy, not a long-term strategy.