Why Modi must not wait till September to visit Pakistan
Why Modi must not wait till September to visit Pakistan

Why Modi must not wait till September to visit Pakistan

When it comes to India and Pakistan, there is always the chance of things going wrong

Prime Minister Narendra Modi should not wait for the 19th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit, to be held in Islamabad in September 2016, to visit Pakistan. If he is serious about the recent resumption of bilateral dialogue, he should go next month.

Following the two-minute meeting between Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif in Paris on November 30, and the December 6 meeting in Bangkok of the National Security Advisors and Foreign Secretaries, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj went to Islamabad on December 9 for the “Heart of Asia” conference on Afghanistan, where there was a joint decision to resume bilateral dialogue. Suddenly the sun is out, especially if you consider this quote of an unnamed but top government source in the Hindustan Times of December 14: “India's prime concern behind resuming the talks was to avoid creating the impression before the international community that it was totally reluctant to speak to Pakistan”.

The widely held impression was that the only reason Modi was talking is because he was told to. The prime minister has had to suffer barbs from critics for his frequent flights abroad, and so it is ironic that he has been getting an earful from various important world figures including his friend “Barack” Obama of the United States, Angela Merkel of Germany and David Cameron of Britain. According to a key government interlocutor, the chiding is to this effect: India wants to be on the High Table of international affairs, India talks about its rightful place on the UN Security Council, yet it can't even settle matters in its own neighbourhood – namely, the long-festering dispute with Pakistan.

At the same time, however, the US helped Modi out with his own agenda. On the day that Modi and Sharif met in Paris, the US Department of Defense publicly released its April 2014 report prepared for the US Congress, 'Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan', which states: “Afghan- and Indian- focused militants continue to operate from Pakistan territory to the detriment of Afghan and regional stability. Pakistan uses these proxy forces to hedge against the loss of influence in Afghanistan and to counter India's superior military”. Pakistan was unhappy and protested officially.

Then on December 10, the day after Swaraj's meetings in Islamabad, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, while co-addressing the media with Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar on how a Indo-US defence partnership would form an 'anchor of global stability', said that “Terrorism of all shades and affiliations must be countered without any differentiation”. Saying that a terrorist is a terrorist and not a freedom fighter, addresses directly Modi government's (and the BJP's) agenda vis-a-vis Pakistan.

And on December 9, a US State Department spokesman asserted: “We are not running any talks between India and Pakistan with respect to counter-terrorism.” He also said that the US “views the terrorist threat in that part of the world to be one shared by everybody, including the United States.” This makes clear the factors that made resumption of talks possible.

When it comes to India and Pakistan, there is always the chance of things going wrong, so it may be no coincidence that Swaraj, otherwise an uncharacteristically low-key foreign minister, has made the first high-profile visit by this government to Pakistan. Given the assertive manner of National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and his vice-like grip over foreign relations – Swaraj told Parliament on Monday that Pakistan wanted the foreign ministers to meet in New York in September but India turned it down because we wanted the NSAs to meet first – it is entirely possible that she has been set up to be the “fall guy” if resumption of talks go nowhere.

Leaving aside a major event like the Kargil skirmish or the 26/11 attack, there is always the possibility of non-state or deep-state actors messing about on the Line of Control or in the Kashmir Valley; this would crank up the domestic pressure on Modi to cancel talks. The prime minister has not even been able to resume cricketing ties with Pakistan despite the cricket board and his party MP in it, Anurag Mathur, advocating a series in Sri Lanka.

Which is why waiting till September is not the best way forward. A long gap with a hot summer increases the chances of talks being derailed before they even resume. This is why it would be better, if the PM is serious about engagement, for him to visit Pakistan as early as possible, in January. That would impart a momentum and logic to talks that even his most hardline supporters would be loath to pressure their own PM to cancel.

Is Modi serious about engagement with Pakistan? It won't be long before we know for sure.

(Aditya Sinha is a journalist and co-author of the bestseller, Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years.)

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