Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh must be both chagrined and pleased. He had wanted to breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore and have dinner in Kabul. Here, in reverse order, his successor, Narendra Modi, has done just that. Modi’s maiden visit to Pakistan would be especially galling, since Singh had set his heart on going there, with a detour to his old hometown of Gah. Despite a decade long tenure, which in 2004-2007 gave us a hint of the entente that is possible, Singh failed.
But he should also be happy, because Modi, despite his professedly muscular approach towards Pakistan, is following policy lines set by him and Atal Bihari Vajpayee: bear whatever Pakistan throws at you with fortitude, and press on with engagement with a view of “normalising” Pakistan.
A high-voltage event in Lahore cannot by itself change things. True, but symbolic events, too, have a function. The move has confounded Pakistani hawks who had the darkest thoughts about an Indian PM being feted in Kabul. Instead, on his way back, the Indian leader dropped by in Lahore and presumably briefed his Pakistani counterpart. Equally, the drama has sent an important signal to his bhakts, ever ready to do battle with anything Islamic. Modi has now personally invested in the Pakistan policy, with all the attendant risks that come with it.
Modi’s great advantage is the Nixon effect. Only the dyed in-the-wool anti-communist Richard Nixon could have sought détente with the Soviet Union, and entente with China. So, the periodic firing and infiltration on the international border in Jammu will go on, as will occasional cross-border attacks; there could even be another big terror strike. But that will not dent Modi’s image in the way a reference to Baluchistan in a joint statement did in the case of Singh in 2009.
Modi’s policy lines may have been set by his immediate predecessors, but today’s ground situation, as well as Modi’s own personality, will give it its own shape. Developments in the region – Pakistan’s fight against its own Taliban, as well as the developments in Afghanistan – are a big factor here. New Delhi is confronted with a situation where the US, China and Russia want Islamabad to facilitate the peace process in Afghanistan. Far from an isolated Pakistan, it is India which appeared to be left in the cold.
Modi has now discovered that the road to Kabul lies via Islamabad. “Dropping in” on Nawaz Sharif in Lahore, after declaring in Kabul that India does not intend to compete with Pakistan, is a masterstroke. By his outreach to Kabul, underscored by the first-ever export of lethal weapons systems from India, and the Lahore visit, Modi has reintroduced India into the Afghan equation. This role, crafted so as not to get Islamabad’s back up, will be cemented by the Heart of Asia conference that New Delhi will host next year. Actually on Afghanistan, the pressure is now on Islamabad to deliver the promised ceasefire and peace talks.
In the past year, Modi has learnt just how transformative change is, whether at home or abroad. It is to his credit that he shifted tracks on his Pakistan policy when he realised it was not working. It took a while to overcome the resistance of some of his own advisers, and possibly his own inclinations. But when in July in Ufa he accepted the invite to attend the 19th Saarc summit to be held in Islamabad in September 2016, Modi laid out the markers on the ground, the rest has been a matter of detail. His statement during the recent Combined Commanders Conference, that he was “engaging Pakistan to try and turn the course of history” may be hubristic, but it also promises a policy of determination and vigour for which Modi is known.
Powerful forces remain ranged against an India-Pakistan entente: the Pakistan Army, Islamist groups like Lashkare-Taiba, the Taliban’s Haqqani and other assorted bad guys. Sceptics abound in India as well as the antediluvians of RSS, who still speak of “Akhand Bharat”, when Saarc and Safta are already on the table.
But, as the adage goes, “nothing ventured, nothing gained”. Modi’s political capital remains sky high and as he shapes India’s foreign policy, he is spending some of it because he has understood the importance of getting over the Pakistan limitation. If India is to break out of South Asia and play a larger role in Eurasia and the world, the Pakistan jinx must be broken.
Times of India December 29, 2015