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Prime Minister Modi's Pak conundrum

A five-member Pakistani Joint Investigation Team (JIT) accompanied by Indian officials visited the “sanitised” areas of the Pathankot Air Force base on Tuesday in connection with a probe into the January 2 terror attack. Suffice to say, the Modi government’s decision to invite a Pakistani investigative team to probe the Pathankot attack has been met with derision by both foreign policy hawks and opposition parties alike. To the uninitiated, New Delhi has accused Pakistan-based terror group Jaish-e-Mohammed for the attack. In the past, the terror group has been often suspected of receiving logistical and financial support from the Inter-Services Intelligence – Pakistan’s dreaded intelligence organisation accused of fomenting terror in India. Opposition parties slammed the Bharatiya Janata Party government for allowing Pakistani officials access to a sensitive Indian airbase. They’ve argued that the Pakistani team has been allowed to investigate the Pathankot terror attack, even though Islamabad has provided no assurance of action. However, according to an Indian Express report, the Indian government agreed to allow Pakistani investigators to visit Pathankot after receiving a written commitment that the evidence gathered would be used to pursue a criminal case against the perpetrators. In a letter received earlier this month, Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry reportedly said the evidence was necessary to enable “the building of a strong prosecution case” against the alleged perpetrators. Whether the idea of involving Pakistan in a terror probe works remains to be seen. Nonetheless, the government’s decision to not call off the joint probe sends a message to the international community, particularly South Asia, that the Modi government is very committed to peace with Pakistan. But it’s no secret that the Modi government finds itself in troubled waters. If they had called off the joint probe under pressure from domestic constituents, then all the strategic momentum generated by the Modi government to further peace initiatives with Pakistan would have come to nought. But this isn’t the first time Prime Minister Narendra Modi has brought greater dynamism and imagination to the Pakistan conundrum. On Christmas Day last year, Modi made an unexpected announced visit to the house of Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The bonhomie on display between the two leaders had sent a powerful message to domestic constituents on both sides. 

To generate actual results on the peace process though is a tough, long and arduous process. Nonetheless, the Modi government’s persistence, after an initial series of mishaps, is most welcome. The visit by a Pakistani investigative team must be seen as a confidence-building measure. Only through genuine dialogue can peace be built brick by brick. Nonetheless, the criticism against the government is not entirely unreasonable if one were to go by Prime Minister Modi's past.

Throughout his political career, Modi would often present a hawkish stand on Pakistan. During the run up to the 2014 general elections, 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.” 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 at the start of his reign as Prime Minister, the NDA government would often take a hawkish stand on Pakistan. The National Security Advisor-level talks were cancelled after Islamabad refused to accept New Delhi’s virtual ultimatum against meeting Kashmiri separatists. Matters took a sudden and positive turn after India and Pakistan announced the Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue late last year, although it is yet to take off. Suffice to say, many landmark Indo-Pak peace moments have come through sustained dialogue. 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 the much-reviled track two processes. The remarkable change in Modi’s position boils down to not only a greater understanding of the intractable peace process with Pakistan, but the political capital he possesses. The earlier Congress-led UPA government would often come under heavy pressure to respond strongly to a Pakistan-provoked terror incident. On the certain occasions, it withstood the pressure. But on other occasions, it folded. For example, in response to a border attack in 2013 which left five Indian soldiers dead, Defence Minister AK Antony was quick to blame Pakistan. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also cancelled his scheduled meeting with Nawaz Sharif. Contrast this with the response of the Modi government to the Pathankot attack. The Congress has always felt vulnerable to attacks from right-wing hawks on its side of the border if it was seen to be soft on Pakistan. The party did fear potential, yet misplaced doubts against its “nationalistic” credentials. Any perceived concession to Pakistan by the “liberal” and “secular” Congress would be exploited politically by the right-wing opposition. 

With his anti-Pakistan and "nationalistic" credentials more than established among his fellow right-wing hardliners, Modi does not face the same intractable dilemma. Even the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has come out in support of Modi's peace overtures. However, questions do remain on how Modi utilises the political capital at his disposal with respect to Pakistan. “He may well give Pakistan more time, but it is doubtful if he will be able to show that his Pakistan policy has persuaded Pakistan to turn its back on terror,” said Vivek Katju, a retired Indian diplomat and an old Pakistan hand. “Will he then proceed to engage Pakistan despite its calibrated use of terrorism? The Foreign Secretary hinted so though he did not elaborate on the nature of the engagement. More explicitly, can the proposed Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue go hand-in-hand with terrorism?” One hopes that given more time, Pakistan can be expected to deliver. But if it does not deliver will Modi fall back to his hardline stance? Watch this space for more.  
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