Moving beyond rhetoric in Kashmir

How will Modi and Sharif resist the pressure of the constituencies they have nurtured back home 

Moving beyond rhetoric in Kashmir

The relations between India and Pakistan have always been complicated. Even if the two governments intend to move forward to find a solution to the host of problems and differences they are facing, there are concerns from both sides. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif met in Ufa (Russia) last week, it was surely a significant event in the battered relations of the two neighbouring countries. They not only met but also agreed to issue a joint statement.

However, there was a reaction in both the countries over this meeting, though different in nature. While in India, Modi was questioned for his “flip-flop” policy vis-a-vis Pakistan, PM Sharif got brickbats for ostensibly ignoring Kashmir in the joint statement.

A majority of those who reacted sharply to why the K-word was given a miss believed that Sharif had compromised. In Pakistan, that reaction from opposition, notably from the extremists, is on expected lines, as they would not want any space to be given to India as far as Kashmir is concerned.

But in case of Modi, he is confronted with a problem, which is of a serious nature. His policy and conduct vis-a-vis Pakistan in the past year has come under severe criticism not only from the opposition Congress but also those who closely watch the relations between the two countries.

Former ambassador KC Singh went to the extent of saying that in case of Nawaz Sharif, there has been a consistency as far as India Pakistan relations are concerned, but that has not been the case with Modi. This “flip-flop” is not justified by quoting the May 31, 2015, statement of Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj when she maintained: “As said earlier, our dialogue with Pakistan will only materialize in a peaceful milieu. This zone will be created only when Pakistan takes action against the perpetrators like Lakhvi and others.”

Now that Pakistan, according to India, has not taken any substantial step to bring people like Lakhvi to the book, how come the talks could be held in Ufa. The body language of the two prime ministers, like the foreign secretaries who read out a statement, was also promising. The political grapevine is that Sushma Sawraj is surely the Foreign Minister but the decision on foreign policy lies with Modi only. Hence this u-turn on the government’s official stance that came on Modi’s completion of one year in office.

Leaving aside the debate whether the foreign minister is part of the group that frames policy on Pakistan, the fact remains that there has been a flip-flop in Modi’s handling of the issue.  After Nawaz Sharif came to attend the swearing-in ceremony of Modi in May 2014, there seemed to be a beginning of a new chapter in relations though the brief meeting was overshadowed by conditions like curbing terrorism first.

However, when the Modi government unilaterally called off the Foreign Secretary level talks in July 2014 on the pretext that the Pakistan High Commissioner in India, Abdul Basit, had met Hurriyat leaders and that was not acceptable, it too turned the clock back. This led to a fresh spate of violent incidents on the border and strong, rather threatening statements seemed like becoming the new foreign policy doctrine on both sides. Pakistan’s Defence Minister Khawaja Asif said on January 4, 2015 that India doesn’t understand the language of peace. “In the past six to seven months, we have tried to better our ties with India so that peace can prevail," he said. "But it seems that they do not understand this language. I believe we will now communicate with India in the language they understand.”

Similarly, the junior information minister in India, Rajvinder Singh Rathore, hinted at similar action from New Delhi against Pakistan as in the case of Myanmar. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar also talked about killing a terrorist by a terrorist, which had more than one meaning.

But this abrupt change of heart in Modi surprised one and all. Though the meeting was on the sidelines of SCO in Ufa, Modi turned out to be positive in more than ways. He also accepted the invitation of Nawaz Sharif to attend the SAARC meeting in Pakistan scheduled next January. An agreement to have a meeting at the level of National Security Advisers followed by Directors General of Border Security Force and Rangers are some significant moves. Now that Modi has moved forward without pre-conditioning the dialogue with Hafiz Saeeds and Lakhvis, it remains to be seen whether he would stick to this at least for the next six months so that his proposed visit to Islamabad is not jeopardized.

However, one thing is becoming clear, that Modi does want to be different now vis-a-vis his role in South Asia, as the leader of the largest country. Since he has been trying to send out the larger than life image of himself, the continued hostility with an immediate neighbour does not help him to sustain that image.

It is an admitted fact now that the powers such as United States and European Union do not like the acrimonious relations between the two neighbours. Pakistan’s National Security Adviser Sartaj Aziz had said in February that the telephone call that Modi made to Nawaz Sharif that month was due to “persuasion” by the US. It seems that Modi has realized that in case he wants to be seen as a “leader” in South Asia, he will have to start from where Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who is still to be replaced as a passionate peacemaker in the region, left.

As far as the reaction to Pakistan “compromising” on Kashmir is concerned, that is not so significant if we look at the nature of relations the two countries have. Even breaking the ice to make an eye-to-eye contact is a challenge between the two hostile neighbours. It is well understood that contentious issues such as Kashmir can never be a beginning of a resumed dialogue process. That is probably the fact the Pakistan has realized. Surely there cannot be permanent peace without resolving Kashmir. But the process needs to be initiated on the terms of mutual interests and the constituencies they address back home. Today the challenge is to resume a process and give way to sustained dialogue. That is why Sartaj Aziz talked about Kashmir through backchannel though he had to assert that no talks could be held without Kashmir. Both the governments' bigger challenge is how they could resist the pressure of their home constituencies which they have nurtured with rhetoric over a period of time. But the fact is that talks have begun and they must go on.