The India-Pakistan talks train has arrived, once again, at a familiar station: The Rawalpindi Impasse. Through their man, High Commissioner Abdul Basit, Pakistan’s military bosses made it known earlier this week that they are not about to let the Narendra Modi-Nawaz Sharif bonhomie track lead to substantial talks, let alone peace between the two nations. How did the Modi government get it so wrong on Pakistan? What can it do to put the peace process back on track?
No one seems to know where the Modi government's Pakistan policy is, or where it is going. It has jerked up and down for a while and now the vehicle has come to a juddering halt. It began propitiously with the Prime Minister inviting his counterpart Nawaz Sharif for his inaugural, along with other SAARC leaders and reached its high point with Modi's surprise visit to Lahore on Christmas Day. But the Pathankot attack derailed that momentum and things haven't been the same since then. The key Foreign Secretary level talks, aimed at defining the future dialogue have yet to be held since they were called off in August 2014 following Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit's insistence in meeting Kashmiri separatist leaders on the eve of the talks.
Prime Minister Modi sought to pick up the threads in the SAARC summit in Kathmandu in November 2014 when he reportedly had an hour-long secret meeting arranged by businessman Sajjan Jindal. However, at the public level they merely exchanged a handshake. Finally, the two sides had an official meeting at the Russian city of Ufa at the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in July 2015. The five-point outcome included a meeting between the National Security Advisers to discuss all issues relating to terrorism; early meetings of the heads of the border guarding forces and the military operations departments; the release of fishermen and boats within 15 days and discussions of means to expedite Mumbai case trial.
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This was envisaged as the beginning of a process which would culminate in Modi's attendance of the SAARC summit in Islamabad in November 2016, which would also mark the first visit by an Indian Prime Minister since January 2004 when Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited Islamabad for an earlier SAARC summit, and which inaugurated the peace process that has now come to a total halt. However, the proposed meeting of the NSA's which was to be held in Delhi in August 2015 was again postponed following the Pakistani insistence in talking to the Hurriyat. Modi and Sharif took the opportunity of the Paris Climate Summit, to have a quick exchange at the conference centre's lobby on November 30, 2015 which led to the meeting of the NSAs in Bangkok on December 6. Simultaneously, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Islamabad to attend the "Heart of Asia" conference relating to Afghanistan. All this flurry of activity culminated in Prime Minister Modi's surprise stopover in Lahore on his way back from an official visit to Afghanistan.
But the hype generated by the Lahore visit on Christmas Day came crashing down a week later following the attack on Pathankot Air Force Base by Pakistani militants, allegedly belonging to the Jaish-e-Muhammad. This led to yet another deferment of the long-awaited Foreign Secretary level talks. And since then, the India-Pakistan relationship is in a state of stasis. To add another volatile ingredient to the witches brew of India-Pakistan relations has been the arrest in March 2016 of Commander (retired) Kulbhushan Jadhav in Pakistan for allegedly supporting Baloch nationalists and financing terrorists and seeking to destabilise Pakistan.
In all this, the visit of a Pakistan Joint Investigation Team to Pathankot would have been a sideshow, but for a report in a Pakistani paper that it had concluded that the Pathankot attack was a "false flag operation," in other words conducted by the Indians themselves to defame Pakistan. This has played out badly in India, especially since the Pakistan High Commissioner has said that the JIT visit would not automatically lead to a reciprocal visit by the Indian National Investigation Agency to Pakistan.
India and Pakistan have sought to square the circle of fighting terrorism together beginning with the Joint Terror Mechanism set up in the wake of the meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Pervez Musharraf in Havana in 2006. But given Pakistan's complex approach to religious extremism-sheltering and supporting extremists who target Afghanistan and India and attacking the extremists who are targeting Pakistan-makes this a difficult task.
India's current views on relations with Pakistan were summarised by Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar in his speech at the inauguration of the India chapter of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on April 6. He said that India was determined to keep "the focus firmly on the central issue of terrorism." In response to a question he said that "the change this government has brought in, is the centrality of terrorism in the dialogue." This, he said had been underscored by the Indian approach in Ufa, the dialogue at Bangkok and will also inform the bilateral dialogue "when it happens."
This centrality is somewhat puzzling. Figures, say with the South Asia Terrorism Portal, show that Pakistan-origin violence, whether it is terrorist strikes in India, or militant action in Kashmir, are at an all time low and have been steadily declining since the Mumbai attack of November 2008. Yet, to hear the government and its spokespersons, one would imagine that India was the focus of global terrorism. The Prime Minister has gone out of his way to chide the world community for not pressing on with an international convention on terrorism. In his visit to Brussels in the wake of the recent terrorist attack, Modi lashed out against the UN and warned that it would become irrelevant if it did not develop a response to the problem.
Insiders say that the emphasis on terrorism is a means of isolating Pakistan in the international community. But if that is so the policy is a spectacular failure. In the past year, Pakistan has regained its centrality to the geopolitics of the region with the US and China backing Islamabad to deliver on peace in Afghanistan through what is called the Quadrilateral Cooperation Group. The US is supplying a new tranche of military aid to Pakistan, and China has stepped up its economic relations through the new China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Worse, Russia is now cosying up to Islamabad and has lifted its long time arms embargo on Pakistan. So far from isolating Pakistan, New Delhi has isolated itself from the geopolitics of the AfPak region.
The contortions in Modi's Pakistan policy can be explained if you see them as an effort towards a short-cut in India-Pakistan relations. Since Rajiv Gandhi's time, India has sought to simultaneous contain and engage Pakistan. Indeed, it has believed that to contain Pakistan, which means to restrict and restrain the efforts of Pakistan's security enclave which obsessively targets India, New Delhi needs to engage the other parts of Pakistan, that's the civilian politicians, its businessmen and civil society.
Of course, the security enclave is aware of this and seeks to foil all efforts which would, in the long run, undermine its own standing. Now, India seems to have developed its own security enclave which thinks that engaging Pakistan is a waste of time and is paying back Pakistan in its own coin by supporting the Baloch and Gilgit-Baltistan separatists. So we now have a recipe for violently fluctuating relations, held hostage to our respective security enclaves. The bottom line is that the India-Pakistan process requires deft and firm political leadership. It is a no-brainer that India needs a peaceful and stable Pakistan for its own benefit. Because Modi is much stronger in his domestic context than Nawaz Sharif, it behoves on him to take leadership of the process. He has shown he is capable of expending political capital for his Pakistan policy. What he needs to do now, is to take charge of it and work out a clear-cut roadmap and stick to it.
The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation...