Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “spontaneous” visit to Lahore on Christmas Day has left peaceniks across both India and Pakistan pleasantly surprised. Under any circumstance, it is a bold move.
What makes it all the more surprising is that Modi undertook this bold move. Throughout his political career, Modi had consistently presented a hawkish stand on Pakistan, especially during the run up to the 2014 general elections. In interviews, he would often refer to Pakistan as the “enemy country” and a nation of “expert liars”. In fact, Modi had often ridiculed the UPA government’s policy of talking peace, especially in the aftermath of the 26/11 attack on Mumbai. “A neighbour hits you and in response you go to America!” he said. “Why don’t you go to Pakistan instead? It needs to be replied back in its own coin. Stop writing love letters to Pakistan,” he had once said.
The obvious hint here is that if matters were left to Modi, he would have used force to respond to the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack. Even during his reign as Prime Minister, the NDA government would often present a hawkish stand on Pakistan. In August, the National Security Advisor-level talks were cancelled after Islamabad refused to accept New Delhi’s virtual ultimatum against meeting the Kashmiri separatists. Matters took a sudden and positive turn earlier this month after Indian and Pakistan announced the Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue. Like the Composite Dialogue process, the subjects remain more or less the same: counter-terrorism and confidence building measures, trade and visas, Sir Creek and Kashmir. Until the announcement, the focus was only on terrorism, with engagements held only at the very highest level.
Suffice to say, many landmark Indo-Pak peace moments have come through the Composite Dialogue and the much reviled Track Two process at different levels of government. Initiatives such as the mutual exchange of prisoners, the Delhi-Lahore bus service, a new visa regime and various initiatives to better Indo-Pak trade have come through the composite dialogue and track two processes. Probably the strongest example of their success was the 2003 ceasefire on the Line of Control, which had then saved countless lives, both civilian and military. Cynics and hawks would counter these claims by stating that today the LoC ceasefire lies in tatters. Moreover, hawks on the Indian side would ask what’s changed in the past year for the Modi government to undertake such a dialogue process. Pakistan still believes that the Kashmir issue is the root cause of all the terrorism in the entire region. Its intelligence establishment continues to fund militant groups that cross over into India and counterfeit currency continues to make its way from across the border.
The other argument often made is that without the acquiescence of the Pakistani military, any tangible results seem unlikely. Admittedly, these arguments have been made in these very columns. Nonetheless, the Modi government has seemingly understood that engaging with Pakistan in a composite dialogue is the only way forward, where solid incremental gains can be achieved.
Moreover, according to a recent report in Reuters, “the quiet involvement of Pakistan’s powerful military” this year has paved the way for the revival of a dialogue process with India. In fact, the news report goes on to suggest that Washington had “worked hard to convince (Pakistan) Army Chief Sharif during his visit to Washington last month to support going back to the negotiating table”. As many would already know, the Pakistani military establishment is one of the key beneficiaries of Washington’s financial largesse.
A hawkish Indian position would often entail blaming Pakistan for sponsoring terror across the border into Kashmir as a reason to suspend talks. Although such a position is entirely reasonable, it is hard to see what tangible aims can be achieved through it. In addition, New Delhi must also consider Pakistan’s prominent place in the geopolitics of South Asia. India is clearly not in a position to isolate Pakistan. New Delhi’s recent push towards enhancing relations with Washington has seen Islamabad growing closer to Beijing. Moreover, Washington needs Islamabad to propel the Afghan peace process, thereby allowing for the quick withdrawal of US troops. It is another matter that Pakistani military and the intelligence establishment have botched the Afghan peace process due to compulsions on the home front.
After the failed Ufa agreement, New Delhi has also understood that Pakistan’s answer to not talking about Kashmir is terrorism. It may upset a few of Modi’s core constituents, but there is no way an Indo-Pak dialogue can move forward without putting Kashmir issue on the table. If New Delhi fails to include Kashmir, Islamabad’s response would be to not talk terror. Such a position serves no purpose, except to further antagonise both sides. Incremental changes, which are visible on the ground and confidence building measures, allied with rigorous follow-up work and a whole lot of trust is what will propel Indo-Pak relations. Moreover, the strategy followed by the Modi government, which now entails taking everybody, including the media, by surprise is a welcome development.
Such a policy will ensure that those opposed to talks don’t get the time to preempt talks with terrorism, protests or excuses. With foreign secretary-level talks scheduled for later next month, one hopes that the Modi government follows up on the composite dialogue process with tangible gains on the ground. After dilly-dallying for 18 months, Prime Minister Modi may have finally arrived at a coherent strategy to propel the Indo-Pak peace process, irrespective of the glaring fault lines that will continue to exist.