Between the threats and bear hugs

All that Indians and Pakistanis ever wanted from their leaders was that they silence the guns along their needlessly tense borders and to go back to a ceasefire, which their forebears had worked out in a moment of sagacity in 2003. All that was needed was for India and Pakistan to hold irreversible talks at any desperate level, and if nothing came out of them, to continue talking. One reason you and I are alive today may lie in the fact that at the height of their nuclear brinkmanship John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev never shut down the lines of communication with each other. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s belief in his own Herculean capabilities is at best a happy tiding. If he hammed his role in Lahore or overstretched a simple script it must not rile his opponents. Where is the harm if he was doing a Manmohan Singh without giving him due credit? We all know it was Singh who dreamt of some day eating breakfast in Kabul, lunch in Lahore and dinner in Delhi. In his turn, Singh was trying to keep alive what Atal Behari Vajpayee had begun. Modi’s dramatic bear hugs in Lahore were, without doubt, a huge relief for those who wish India and Pakistan well.

For mortal earthlings trying to figure out the surprise quotient in Modi’s otherwise pleasant sojourn, it might be useful to seek simpler reasons for the apparent change of heart. To those who study conflict the most logical of all the possible reasons for the Lahore drama ought to be a realisation that war with Pakistan was a terrifyingly forbidding prospect for both. One hopes that was among the key factors that led to the flight to Lahore. Only recently, Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj more or less admitted as much in Parliament. War is not an option, she said. Even the Congress, which can be utterly churlish when it is out of power, was unable to stifle the appeal of that one sentence by Swaraj. Dialogue was the way forward, she declared.

Several studies have favoured Modi’s new stance. They have suggested that while India was developing limited punitive options for a future terror attack its military advantage over Pakistan remains much less substantial than is commonly believed. In other words, the outcomes over limited military campaigns remain uncertain. It is likely that the Indian leadership factored such a calculation for Swaraj to state that war was not an option with Pakistan. It wasn’t an easy thing to say even if she believed in it. She was the one, after all, who asked for 10 Pakistani heads for the scalp of each Indian soldier beheaded on the Line of Control. She was also the public face of Vajpayee’s veiled detractors who plotted the demise of the Agra summit. Yet, I have seen her praying for peace at the Katasraj temple, off the Islamabad-Lahore highway, on a private visit. I have seen her join Basant revelries on the terrace in Lahore from where Benazir Bhutto had just left. Peace is the natural state of being for Swaraj as it is for most Indians and Pakistanis. This truth should not be lost in the din of the Sharif-Modi bonhomie last week.

Allow Modi his drama. We could, meanwhile, explore the factors that spurred Vajpayee to just as dramatically declare at a news conference in Lucknow, out of the blue one day, that he would take a bus ride to Lahore. That was a short-lived tectonic shift too. Apparently, Nawaz Sharif had chided him for “going to Amritsar via Bhatinda”. So Vajpayee took a bus from Amritsar to Lahore.

Otherwise, recall Vajpayee and Sharif sitting glumly across from each other in Colombo to produce what Pakistan’s Prime Minister exasperatedly nicknamed a “zero summit”. It will be remembered as the first tense encounter between the two leaders after their untenable tit-for-tat nuclear tests of May 1998. There happens to be another compelling similarity between Modi’s and Vajpayee’s rush to Lahore. It came in the form of international opprobrium for the Vajpayee government when his Hindutva supporters lynched an Australian Christian missionary and his two sons in the forests of Odisha. Mohammed Akhlaque’s murder in Dadri earned for Modi equally bad press. Lahore offered relief to both. Between the threats of aar paar ki ladai, (a decisive war) and bear hugs lies a tougher reality that could be challenging for both than their occasional impulse to self-destruct.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi

By arrangement with Dawn

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( Source : jawed naqvi )
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