Happy birthday, neighbour!

Sanjay Kapoor | Updated on March 09, 2018

Lahore: Prime Minister Narendra Modi is received by his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif upon his arrival in Lahore on Friday. PTI Photo / Twitter MEA (PTI12_25_2015_000207B)   -  PTI

Modi’s dramatic visit to Lahore shows he is no prisoner to history. But will Sharif be able to escape his army?

No one really buys that Prime Minister Narendra Modi just dropped by at Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s residence at Lahore to wish him happy birthday. A Facebook or Whatsapp message with a carefully chosen jingle from Youtube helped by Twitter to go viral, would have been adequately prime ministerial for our social media savvy Modi.

Evidently Modi had a lot more going in his mind. Returning from a summit meeting at Moscow and later Kabul where he inaugurated the India-funded Afghan parliament, he landed in Lahore to engage in a kind of diplomacy that has not been seen in India in a long time. Before embarking for Lahore, Modi made statements that normally heads of states make when they are overflying a country. He made friendly noises towards Pakistan by stating that the country would help Afghanistan get connected with rest of South Asia.

Along with India, Modi hoped Pakistan and Iran would help stabilise Afghanistan. There was no attempt to buy into the rhetoric of many Afghan leaders, including former president Hamid Karzai, that the epicentre of their problems was Pakistan. Modi was conciliatory towards Pakistan and we know why — he was to land in Lahore a few hours later.

Peace attempts

Pakistan presents many opportunities to Indian politicians. So many prime ministers from Jawaharlal Nehru to Manmohan Singh have come close to sealing a peace pact with Pakistan and undoing the hatred of Partition, but something or the other has gone wrong. When Nehru first visited Pakistan he was so enthused by the rapturous welcome that his counterpart Muhammad Ali Bogra organised in Karachi that he was convinced it was possible to solve Kashmir and other issues. Nehru organised a public meeting for Ali in Delhi in 1953 where he famously controlled the crowds himself and offered workable options to sort Kashmir dispute. For many historians that was perhaps the best opportunity that the two countries got to solve the issue, but Pakistan frittered away that opportunity by joining the US-backed military bloc, SEATO.

After that, Rajiv Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto, both young and not weighed down by the bitterness of the Partition, came close to sorting out bilateral issues, but again, the Pakistani army brusquely stepped in to stall the moves.

The Pakistani army perceives India as an enemy state and believes peace with New Delhi is an existential threat. Its security establishment’s approach to peace initiatives is more tactical than borne out by commitment to bringing amity to the border. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s trip to Lahore is a case in point. Nawaz Sharif was prime minister then, and there was very active back channel diplomacy that facilitated that trip. Even as Vajpayee was being feted by the Pakistani leadership, its troops were positioning themselves in Kargil. It was obvious that Sharif was kept in dark about the sneaky occupation to alter the balance in Siachen by the chief of army staff and later president, Pervez Musharraf. This duplicitous conduct resulted in a major setback in India-Pakistan ties, but as it happens with these two countries, after a gap, their leaders were busy hugging each other and talking peace.

Manmohan Singh’s attempt to normalise ties were tripped by the brazen attack by Lashkar militants in Mumbai, 2008. After it was proved that theISI was involved in overseeing the operation, the Indian government decided to scrap the composite dialogue with Islamabad. Since then India-Pakistan ties have not really settled down.

Surprise moves

Flip-flop has, in many ways, defined the government of Narendra Modi, who, during his election campaign, had mocked at the soft ways of the UPA government. He had made fun of the “biryani” that had been offered to Sharif when he came on pilgrimage to Ajmer Sharif. So when Modi came to power, he took everyone by surprise when he invited Sharif and other South Asian leaders for his swearing-in.

When the two armies began to trade heavy mortar fire, he looked for a reason to cancel the talks between the two countries. Pakistan’s high commissioner entertaining Kashmiri separatists was ostensibly the reason for cancelling secretary-level talks. After months of radio silence on how the relationship would be reignited, the two countries surprisingly produced a friendly joint declaration at Ufa, Russia, on the side-lines of the Shanghai Cooperation Meeting. An impression gained ground that both Russia and China had weighed on the two acrimonious neighbours to get back to the negotiating table as a ticket to SCO membership. The Ufa agreement collapsed a week later due to violence on the border. India seemed adamant about not talking to Pakistan till the issue of terror was addressed.

When many had given up hope of the revival of talks between the two countries, the two prime ministers met briefly at the climate change summit. After that, relations between the two countries suddenly seemed to thaw.

A few weeks later came reports of the two national security advisors meeting in Bangkok. Action seemed to pick up with Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj visiting Islamabad and declaring that the two countries will now engage in a comprehensive dialogue to sort out all the issues. With so much spade work having been done by diplomats engaged in the back channels, it was a matter of time before Modi, too, put his imprimatur on the negotiations.

From push to shove

The big question is: Who is responsible for pushing the two nuclear warriors to talk peace? Did President Vladimir Putin remind Modi of the Ufa declaration or was it the Americans, who do not want Pakistan to lose focus in their fight against the Islamic militants located in FATA and Waziristan? Some diplomats claim that China has been worried about the growing tensions between India and Pakistan as it could hurt its $46-billion investment in the economic corridor between Gwadar and Kashgar. The Pakistan army is quite assertive when it comes to expressing its resolve to protect this corridor.

Be that as it may, Pakistan, recently, has been departing from its earlier stated positions. It refused to send troops to Yemen and more recently opposed Saudi Arabia’s position in Syria. This is a major change.

Modi could also see in normalisation of ties with Pakistan an attempt to shake off the stigma of his government being anti-Muslim. By travelling to Pakistan he may have taken a leaf out of Vajpayee’s book to put the fears of the minorities to rest by showing that he was comfortable with Partition and would not use hate-based politics to further his party’s interests. The Bihar results may have made him wiser. The flip side is: How will Modi’s supporters take his Sharif-my-friend tweet?

The writer is the editor of HardNews

Published on December 25, 2015

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor