In the one year of his government, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s travels to five continents have been marked by one common motif: that he is on the front foot. To borrow a phrase, he has boldly gone where many PMs have not gone before, with a first visit to Mongolia, and the first stand-alone visits to Sri Lanka, Canada, Fiji, and the Seychelles in decades. The government has taken up challenges abroad and pursued them unequivocally despite the possible backlash domestically: ratifying the Land Boundary agreement with Bangladesh, pressing ahead with the nuclear deal with the U.S., the announcement of defence buys in Paris, disregarding the security establishment by offering e-visas to China, and several other steps. However, Mr. Modi’s dealings with Pakistan are the one exception to his otherwise proactive style. With Pakistan, the NDA government has appeared indecisive and risk-averse, in sharp contrast to Mr. Modi’s first bold move of inviting Mr. Sharif to his swearing-in ceremony a year ago.
Limited engagement At the time, the invitation to Mr. Sharif had been hailed as a ‘masterstroke’, but the strokes played since have puzzled many in both Islamabad and in New Delhi, including the government’s supporters. Thus, while the government drew red lines around the Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit’s meeting with the Hurriyat ahead of the Foreign Secretary talks in August, it failed to follow through when he met them in March this year. While Mr. Modi and Mr. Sharif exchanged gifts for their mothers, an obviously intimate gesture, the warmth didn’t translate into the bilateral process. While India and Pakistan saved each other’s citizens in Yemen, they didn’t come any closer as a result. Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar went to Islamabad to talk, but didn’t engage in any substantive way, and while Mr. Modi has dialled Mr. Sharif on at least three occasions, on the two occasions when they have been in the same city, even in the same room — New York for the UNGA and Kathmandu for SAARC — they have not held any formal talks. The two leaders may be afforded another opportunity in July, as both are expected to be in Russia’s Ufa city for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit.
Eventually though, evented meetings and “talks for the sake of talks” aren’t a substitute for policy, and Mr. Modi alone cannot be expected to take the entire blame or credit for the relationship. The policy undertaken by the government in 2014 has in effect become what India’s default position has been since the 2008 Mumbai attacks: a limited engagement without a defined process. As a result, it seems to have no desired outcomes other than avoiding another Mumbai, which in itself is a defensive position. The initiatives discussed last year, in terms of trade, power supplies, and increased visas for businessmen remain proposals for a time when the countries move out of this phase.
Explaining the stasis Is there a point, as many within our government argue, to the present stasis in ties between India and Pakistan? After all, while infiltration and Pakistan-sponsored terror activity remain a concern, it would seem that those able to control terror groups within the establishment have been deterred from planning another attack all this time. Second, not talking to Pakistan until it shows results on terror keeps the pressure on the Sharif government to deliver on justice in the Mumbai 26/11 attacks. Third, at a time when the world is grappling with IS terror, a sharp focus on Pakistan’s terror activities will ‘isolate’ it diplomatically from others who are fighting jihadi terror like the U.S. and China. Fourth, while government to government engagement is at a standstill, India “stands with the people of Pakistan”, as both the PM and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval have said in the past year, and that will pay off in goodwill inside Pakistan. All these arguments are given by those inside the government who work on diplomatic policy with Pakistan.
Unfortunately, not the least because Pakistan works in counter-intuitive ways itself, none of the above has been borne out on the ground in the past year. Terror networks, both those supported by the Pakistani state like LeT and JeM, and those fighting the state, including the TTP and now even IS, continue to thrive, giving no indication that India is any safer today for the lack of engagement. Second, the “pressure” on the Sharif government has worn thin, and the case against the Mumbai attackers has never seemed more tenuous, with bail for Zaki Ur Rahman Lakhvi and complete freedom granted to Hafiz Saeed. Meanwhile, despite Pakistan’s actions and its blatant disregard of David Headley’s corroboration of the case against Hafiz Saeed as detailed again in a memoir, the world is far from holding it to account. Days after Mr. Barack Obama’s visit to India in January, his government proposed a sixfold increase in military aid ($265 million in FMF or foreign military financing) to Pakistan, and a total aid outlay of $1 billion for the year. China has announced a $46 billion package to build Pakistan’s infrastructure, and even India’s oldest friend Russia has offered military exercises and helicopters to Pakistan.
What’s more dangerous perhaps is the U-turn by Afghanistan, which has backed India for years against the terror groups that threaten them both. Last week’s revelation of a joint counter-terrorism MoU between Afghanistan’s intelligence agency NDS and the ISI will deeply impact India’s defences, not the least in Kabul, where four Indians were killed in an attack possibly meant to target the Indian ambassador. President Ghani, who spearheaded the MoU within weeks of returning from meeting Mr. Modi, could hardly have taken such a drastic step without American support.
Finally, the absence of government to government engagement and the PM and NSA’s comments are not being allowed to percolate to the ground in Pakistan to produce the desired goodwill: Pakistani TV channels run more repeats of Mr. Doval’s speech from February 2014 where he explained his “offensive defence” strategy as “if you do one Mumbai, you may lose Balochistan”, while for the first time in decades, the Pakistan government has tried to blame RAW for heinous massacres in Peshawar and Karachi. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar’s recent comments on “targeted killings” in Jammu and Kashmir and using “terrorists to kill terrorists” will only serve more grist to Rawalpindi’s propaganda mill.
Moving forward None of these disappointing developments of the past year, however, should discourage Mr. Modi. Instead, they underline the need for him to take the narrative of India-Pakistan ties back into his hands. It is now time to prepare the country for the long-term vision he hopes to implement.
He has no need to reinvent the wheel, but can pick up from where so many of his predecessors left off. Each of them may have tried and failed to resolve issues, or to deter those in Pakistan who wish India harm, but they left indelible stamps on the process: Inder Kumar Gujral gave us the neighbourhood doctrine and the composite dialogue; Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Lahore declaration is considered a template along with the Simla pact for diplomatic dealings; while Manmohan Singh’s four-step formula on Kashmir remains the only solution theoretically acceptable to all sides. Mr. Modi has what none of the others possessed: a clear mandate, an uncritical Cabinet with no coalition compulsions or threat from the opposition. He has shown, as he did with the Bangladesh agreement and China engagement, that he is able to curb the most extremist views on relations with neighbours. It is a moment in Indian history that even the Pakistani government should be able to recognise as unique, and Mr. Modi is best poised to deliver the promise.