India was equally surprised

Cautious optimism in Delhi after Modi's 'birthday diplomacy'

India was equally surprised
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surprise stopover in Pakistan has created quite a buzz in India. Most politicians and civil society representatives have welcomed the meeting between the two prime ministers, but there are some critics too.

The Congress – under whose government the India-Pakistan relationship saw a significant improvement – is now in opposition, and is critical of the sort of political diplomacy practiced by the Indian prime minister. The Congress spokesperson alleged that the visit was to promote business interests of an individual.

Professor Uma Singh, a former head of the Pakistan Studies programme at the Centre for South Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, feels that Narendra Modi’s visit to his counterpart Nawaz Sharif on his birthday is a transformational moment for India. It came at a time when the two neighbours were making efforts to break the deadlock in their mutual ties.

“Since Modi’s ascent to power as India’s prime minister, tensions between the two countries have remained high. The foreign secretary level talks were cancelled at the last minute and the dialogue between their national security advisors was abandoned in August this year,” she says. “The relations thawed after Modi and Nawaz Sharif resumed high level contacts with a brief conversation in Paris in November and their national security advisers met in Bangkok in December.”

Could this herald a breakthrough in the usually tense and accident-prone India-Pakistan relationship? And what would that mean for this volatile region? According to Prof Singh, “The key issues between the two countries still remain intractable and unresolved, including Kashmir for Pakistan and the expeditious trial for the Mumbai attacks for India. These are the issues lingering on for decades.”
Many newspapers dedicated a full page to the visit

Resolving them is not going to be easy, she says. “The road ahead is certainly perilous. Relations with Pakistan have often seen setbacks far worse than the strides in ties. It is to be seen if Modi’s move towards Pakistan represents a maturing and progression of his Pakistan policy.”

Prof Uma Singh says the Congress Party’s attack on Modi’s Lahore visit represents a churlish regression in its policy on Pakistan. “In 2007, then Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh had said he dreamed of a time he could have breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore and dinner in Kabul. Congress should take pride in the fact that Modi is the biggest beneficiary of the previous governments’ sagacious Pakistan policy.”

Therefore, his visit has great symbolic value. Perhaps the most significant facet of the recent spurt in India-Pakistan engagement is that it comes just when Pakistan army and civil administration have been closely integrated. “The recent moves leading to talks between the two countries’ foreign secretaries, which are now slated to open in Islamabad in January, have been building ever since Lt Gen Nasir Khan Janjua was appointed Pakistan’s national security advisor in October 2015. It has certainly brought the Pakistan Army – arguably the most potent centre of power in the country – directly into the loop of negotiations with India,” she says. “There is no doubt that major international powers have appreciated Modi’s stopover in Pakistan. However, the success of the peace talks hinges on how successfully and seriously India engages. And in Pakistan, it is the Pakistani Army that holds the key to success of the negotiations.”

Strategic analyst Dr Pankaj Kumar Jha believes the recent history of India-Pakistan ties is important in understanding the dynamics of the new developments. The Indian prime minister had invited leaders from all SAARC countries and Mauritius to his oath taking ceremony in 2014. Proving the rumours in India wrong, the Pakistani prime minister attended the ceremony. The intense parleys that followed, says Dr Jha, aimed to restore some sanity in the mutual relationship. “But the fissures between the political establishment, the military brass and radical elements became wide and open in the last year. This affected the composite dialogue between the two countries, and the talks between the foreign secretaries and national security advisers were also stopped.”

Backroom talks played a significant role in bringing the two countries back together, he says. That began with a handshake between the two prime ministers in Paris and gained momentum during the meeting of the two national security advisers at Bangkok. Ms Sushma Swaraj’s participation in the Heart of Asia meeting in Pakistan was a signal of the improved relationship between the two countries.

There are four key underpinnings of Modi’s Lahore visit, Dr Jha says. “Firstly, Modi is keen to adopt outside-the-box thinking to improve the relationship between the two South Asian countries. Secondly, the collateral compulsion of the international leaders, mainly the US, has forced the two countries to at least initiate talks, even if at a sub-optimal level. Thirdly, Pakistan cannot be ignored for lasting peace in Afghanistan, but for that it will have to play the role of an honest partner. And finally, the reflection of the Islamic State (IS) is being seen not only in Afghanistan but also in parts of Pakistan, which is a matter of concern for both the countries.”

Although Hindi newspapers are known for fanning jingoism, they seem to have been charmed by Modi’s surprise move. “In the matters of foreign affairs, the Hindi media in India largely follow the English-language media,” says Prakash Kumar Ray, a left-liberal blogger and a journalist at Prabhat Khabar. “They were also surprised by Modi’s birthday diplomacy. In fact, they were more surprised than the rest. Every possible detail of that 150-minute-long stay in Lahore was told on screen and printed in newspapers, courtesy unnamed sources. Celebrating the visit, many newspapers dedicated a full page to it, along with reports on the first page.”

Statements with even the slightest of criticism or questioning were presented with disdain. All praise was given importance. “Almost all newspapers reported how the Pakistani media presented the visit. And, Hafiz Saeed’s video statement also got prime space on TV channels and in newspapers. Even those journalists and commentators who oppose or criticise Modi’s policies were happy and hopeful.”

The visit made many in the Bhartiya Janata Party amend their hardline stance on Pakistan.  “Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surprise visit to Lahore… shows the Modi government’s commitment to improve relations with Pakistan,” said Vikash Anand, a member of the editorial board of the BJP mouthpiece Kamal Sandesh. “It is a departure from the stereotypical protocol-driven diplomacy. He is following the [Vajpayee] doctrine – ‘We can choose our friends but not our neighbours’. Modi’s move has proved that he is a staunch believer in ‘vasudhaiva kutumbakam’ (the world is one family), and that a visa is not necessary to meet other members of a family.”

Despite the hopes, analysts are too cautious to make any predictions because of the rollercoaster history of ties between the two South Asian neighbours.