Modi at crossroads

Update: 2016-01-04 00:26 GMT
Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Photo: PTI)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surprise visit to Lahore on Christmas Day denotes two things: His love for the dramatic in foreign affairs and the belated recognition that Pakistan is India’s neighbour, and has to be engaged. A secondary factor was the “advice” of the United States and other Western powers that New Delhi engage Islamabad.

There was Mr Modi’s dramatic invitation to US President Barack Obama to be the chief guest at Republic Day celebrations last year and any number of informal meetings with his Pakistani counterpart on the sidelines of international gatherings. Initially, it must be recorded that Mr Modi had made his point to his domestic constituency by calling off talks at the last minute on the score of Pakistanis meeting Kashmiri leaders. The Paris climate conference offered him the opportunity of a meeting with Nawaz Sharif to row back and schedule a meeting of national security advisers in Bangkok.

Mr Modi is learning a lesson every Prime Minister has imbibed in relation to Pakistan. The burden of the bloody Partition of the subcontinent and New Delhi helping Bangladeshis to carve out a separate country for themselves still weigh heavily on all actors on the subcontinent. Three wars the two countries have fought are testimony to it. Kashmir has a high salience for Pakistan as does the Pakistani-directed Mumbai massacre for India. Islamabad has traditionally adopted a policy of inflicting a thousand cuts on India through terrorist activities often guided by its spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence. The terrorist attack on the Pathankot airbase is one example of a Pakistani domestic constituency making its point.

For much of the time the two countries have been dancing on a pin in emphasising Kashmir or Mumbai. Given the sensitivities, progress in talks has been made over the decades through back-channel negotiations, as has been revealed in detail by Pakistan’s former foreign minister Khurshid Mahmood Kasuri. But in the ultimate analysis, going the last mile has depended upon the stability of the political leadership in Islamabad and New Delhi, particularly in the former because of the authority the military establishment enjoys. General Pervez Musharraf’s political mortality put paid to firm up the back channel framework the last time.

The ruling dispensations of the two countries have to be duly mindful of hardliners in their midst. Pakistani regimes have given the accolade of India being the Enemy No. 1 although the rhetoric has been softened a bit of late. For Mr Modi’s constituency in particular, a hard line towards Pakistan plays well, one of the contributory factors to the Prime Minister going astray in his initial approach to Islamabad. These factors boil down to a simple equation: It is a hard slog negotiating with Islamabad and requires much patience and crafty negotiation not only with the other side but also domestically.

No one has been a greater peacemaker with Pakistan than former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and yet he never could make it to the place of his birth in 10 years of rule because of pulls and pressures in the governing Congress. It is, therefore, ironic that a visit Mr Modi has been able to make within the first two years of his rule should invite invectives from the Congress. It is political opportunism of the worst kind.

Pakistanis must grasp the opportunity of Mr Modi’s initiative for the simple reason that his main domestic constituency includes right-wing chauvinistic forces and, in the historical context of US President Richard Nixon peacemaking with Maoist China, it would be easier for him to strike a deal than a liberal Indian leader. In any event, Mr Modi seems to have finally grasped the point that any framework agreement has to be hammered out away from the glare of television lights.

It must, of course, be understood on both sides that even with the best of their leaders’ intentions, unravelling a relationship of angst, sorrow and heartbreaks remains a Herculean task. Much is being made by the Indian side of talks with the Pakistani national security adviser, who is a retired general, in the expectation that he provides a direct line to the powerful military establishment. Certainly, the military is an important factor in the ruling dispensation in Pakistan, but the country’s power structure is more complex and the ISI spy agency has developed an empire of its own.

The optimistic gloss Mr Sharif has given to future relations with India after meeting Mr Modi is a helpful sign although several of his countrymen must be waiting in the wings to spoil the party (witness the new Pathankot attack). In any event, the hope expressed of treating Indo-Pakistani interactions as routine business is likely to prove illusory because the Partition was simply too heart-wrenching and bloody to be forgotten and for the older generation, an element of score-settling creeps in.

Let us hope that the two sides get a few substantial private comprehensive sessions under their belt before sounding the bugle. Indo-Pakistani relations are like a delicate flower that wilts under the sun. The time for displaying Mr Modi’s penchant for the dramatic hopefully lies in the future.

There are still many of the pre-Partition generation alive for nationals of the two countries periodically to enact a drama of bonhomie and affection when they meet that mystifies foreign observers. Pakistanis and their Indian counterparts in the North are generous and emotional people and have shared many moments of joy. Where they diverge is in their collective consciousness. Indeed, it is dreadful that the younger generation is being fed biased histories in schools and colleges.

This is not a problem singular to India and Pakistan but true of countries divided by strife and killings. One has to think of the Balkans, which has given a new generic term to the English language. Resolving such problems begins with recognising what they are. Mr Modi and Mr Sharif have a chance to find a place in history books.



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