Can Modi be Trusted?

Can Modi be Trusted?
Since the joint statement about a ceasefire between Pakistan and India at the Line of Control — which came into effect from the midnight of February 24 and 25 — analysts in both countries have tried to make sense of how and why this came about and whether this harbingers an opening to the more challenging areas of the relationship.

The view from Occupied and illegally-annexed Kashmir is generally pessimistic. There’s a sense that India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, was  looking for a reprieve and he has got it. With disengagement at the Line of Actual Control and ceasefire at the LoC, he now has the space to further degrade Kashmiri identity and majority. In this view, the central issue, Kashmir’s future, has been cold-storaged again.

There’s also the view, as expressed by AS Dulat, a former Research and Analysis Wing chief, in an article for The Tribune that the move indicates that Pakistan “may now be reconciled to Articles 370 and 35A being internal matters of India”.

Some analysts in Pakistan believe that Islamabad should have continued to pressure India in conjunction with China. This view implies that Pakistan and China were colluding in dealing with India and both have made a mistake by relaxing the chokehold. In India, on the other hand, analysts close to the establishment have argued that this is a master stroke by Modi and he assessed correctly that Pakistan, under pressure, will have no option but to accept a dialling down of hostilities at the LoC.

Many of these concerns with reference to Modi are correct. He and his lieutenant, Amit Shah, never do anything without an eye on electoral gains. Both have a history of using violent episodes to their political advantage. I detailed some in a previous article titled, The Choice is India’s. So the concern that Modi could use this reprieve to his advantage and closer to the elections do something which brings all of this to naught is not misplaced.

Yet, and without prejudice to the fears expressed by Kashmiris, one can argue that the current stalemate is not a policy option either. Take, for instance, the ceasefire announcement. What exactly were the two sides managing to get out of shooting at each other? The legal and administrative measures that the Modi government has taken in IOK whether it be the issuance of domiciles, land acquisition or the Delimitation Commission constituted in March last year to redraw the Lok Sabha and assembly constituencies there have happened before the ceasefire.

The exchange of fire at the LoC could not prevent the Modi government from making those changes. Neither will the ceasefire.

But the ceasefire does help civilians on both sides of the LoC to live in peace and move freely without fear of being shot and killed. In other words, the ceasefire is a good development in and of itself though, and this is important to remember, it does not address the broader framework of Pakistan-India relations in and of itself.

While it provides the space for rebuilding confidence and in doing that helps the two sides take further measures, it will be somewhat naive to assign to it a value that does not belong to it. Put another way, while it’s a tactical step that can add to other strategic approaches informing the broader relationship, it needs to be looked at for what it is, not what we might want it to be and which it might not be.

The sense in IOK that this will provide Modi more space, while perfectly understandable, is misplaced. Modi always had that space, as I have indicated above apropos of the measures his government has taken there since the August 5 illegal move. In fact, one can argue that if this move helps in further progress, Modi will be under pressure to show good faith in any negotiating process if he wants to stay at the table. Pakistan has already made clear that its policy on Kashmir has not changed, the irreducible minimum being a reversal of the August 5 decision. Nor is the reversal a sufficient condition for addressing the issue even as it is a necessary condition for opening a dialogue that addresses the central issue, i.e., the right to self-determination.

Of course, the concern is that that might not happen. And that’s quite possible. If India does not move in the right direction, Pakistan has no reason to remain engaged for the heck of it. But this is not a fear that can be assumed beforehand and allowed to derail any progress even before the process begins. As in all interstate relations, especially when two state actors are also locked in an adversarial relationship, cautious optimism is the only basis for any movement. The opposite of movement of course is a stalemate. And while there are periods when a state might opt for downgrading relations, that would make sense only as a policy of compellence or getting a better bargaining position in the future. Or to put it another way, a stalemate is not an end in itself.

Nor does any further movement preclude Pakistan from reiterating the central proposition, namely that the issue of Kashmir is not just about a tranquil LoC or about Pakistan-India relations. It is about Kashmiris who have still to exercise their right of choice.

If anything, Pakistan has shown good faith. But it has also preconditioned further movement on the next steps India must take. It should be clear in the coming days whether India wants to tango. If it doesn’t, nothing will have been lost anymore than the loss South Asia has already incurred because of unilateral decisions by a rightwing government in India.

The writer is a former news editor of The Friday Times and tweets @ejazhaider

The writer has an abiding interest in foreign and security policies and life’s ironies.