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Knocking on Sharif’s door: Modi forwent isolation, tough talk for diplomacy with Pakistan

New Delhi,Sunil Raman: Prime Minister Narendra Modi surprised everyone by making an unscheduled visit to Pakistan on Friday, sending a clear signal that he was ready to restart and rebuild relations that was unceremoniously put into deep freeze after a brilliant start when he invited prime minister Nawaz Sharif and other South Asian leaders to the swearing-in of the new Indian Cabinet.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif at the latter's residence at Raiwind in Lahore on Friday. PTI / Twitter/@MEAIndia

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif at the latter’s residence at Raiwind in Lahore on Friday. PTI / Twitter/@MEAIndia

On his way back to India after inauguration of Afghanistan’s new parliament building, Modi tweeted that he would meet Nawaz Sharif in Lahore, Pakistan. A surprise announcement by Modi on Christmas day. Modi’s stopover in Lahore comes weeks after External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj attended the Heart of Asia conference on future of Afghanistan in Islamabad, and announced a 360-degree-turn in Modi government’s Pakistan policy in Lok Sabha.

The announcement vindicated many, including the Opposition Congress Party that argued that talks with Pakistan have to continue irrespective of terror-related incidents and cannot be held hostage by petty politics.

Prime Minister Modi’s visit is politically and diplomatically significant. The BJP that strongly opposed Manmohan Singh government’s decade-long policy towards Pakistan of “keep talking” has now conceded that when it comes to Islamabad it is essential to stay engaged.

BJP leaders, including Modi, when in Opposition had demanded that India should not talk to Pakistan until cross-border terrorism ended, those behind Mumbai 2008 attacks were punished and Jamaat-ud-Dawa leader Hafiz Saeed was punished for planning terrorist attacks in India.

In the last 18 months of Modi government, talks with Pakistan were interrupted twice by India with no tangible results. Frankly none of these demands have been met or are likely to be met by Pakistan. Yet the Modi government was forced to retreat and let the National Security Advisors of two countries meet in Bangkok, discuss Kashmir and agree to continue with the talks. It was then that Swaraj’s attendance of Heart of Asia conference was made public.

It was decided that India and Pakistan would hold discussions on wide-ranging issues under the rubric of a Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue as opposed to the nomenclature of Composite Dialogue or Resumed Dialogue used earlier. Convergence and not confrontation would decide the future of talks between the two.

There is a realisation in New Delhi that little was achieved in the last one year by attempts to isolate Pakistan government. China continues to make inroads and the much publicised signing of 51 MOUs by President Xi Jinping and investment in a land corridor linking Xinjiang with Gwadar Port show Beijing’s deep economic investment in a country that India sought to ignore.

The civilian government of Nawaz Sharif has to work with an overbearing Army whose chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, has assumed a stature of a “superman” with his pictures plastered across cities and one who is welcomed in world capitals like a statesman. Appointment of a former general Naseer Janjua as NSA in place of diplomat Sartaj Aziz also contributed to a realisation that it was better to talk to NSA with Army links and open a channel of communication with an all-powerful Army. Henceforth, all terrorism-related issues would be discussed between the two NSAs.

The change in Modi government’s approach to Pakistan was signalled in September. After a meeting of RSS with affiliated organisations, a change in outlook was indicated when its leader Dattatreya Hosabale said, “Even Kauravas and Pandavas (in the epic battle of Mahabharata) were brothers. One has to do everything (for better relations).”

On its part the government realised that appearing tough with Pakistan in response to firings across LoC (Line of Control) had a constituency but, it could not be the sole response when it came to dealing with Islamabad. Talks on the sidelines of Ufa summit ended in a joint statement that mentioned terrorism but not Kashmir and within hours, the Nawaz Sharif government had to backtrack under an onslaught of criticism from the army and political parties.

It is naïve to believe that not mentioning Kashmir in a joint statement is a sign of progress and reveals Pakistani commitment to resolve outstanding issues with India. On the contrary, Pakistani Army-sponsored cross-border terrorism for over six decades is a result of Kashmir being viewed as a dispute. That cannot be wished away. Then India thought of moving ahead with South Asian connectivity to the exclusion of Pakistan, a move that again made little progress.

It was India that approached Pakistan for bilateral talks at Ufa and at Paris climate talks Modi met Nawaz Sharif.

Modi’s diplomatic masterstroke by getting Pakistan PM and other South Asia leaders to the swearing-in of his government was frittered away in the months to come when his government’s policy towards Islamabad showed lack of clarity and consistency. Eighteen months later, Modi has sought to erase a period that reflected some immaturity by deciding to engage Pakistan and its military in talks.

Landing in Lahore after a stopover in Kabul, Modi also realises that the road to Afghanistan goes through Pakistan and any hope of joining the Afghanistan Pakistan Trade and Transit Agreement would need Islamabad’s approval.

Manmohan Singh wanted to end his prime ministership with a visit to Pakistan that never materialised. More than Singh, Modi is conscious of his role in shaping India’s destiny and to realise that he has understood that engagement with Pakistan is not an issue to score mere debating points.

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