The inevitable has happened. We have been targeted again — this time, an air force base in Pathankot. It makes no sense to say “we told you so”. But the fact remains that our prime minister in search of peace might have overlooked what he had been warning us about all along when in opposition. Are we to seek peace knowing that there are pitfalls? Is it still worth it, given that there is no alternative to peace?
The PM’s dramatic trip to Lahore to connect and bond with PM Nawaz Sharif was in keeping with his general style since he took charge in New Delhi. It had all the dimensions of individualism and theatre that have become the hallmark of PM Narendra Modi’s politics. Understandably, questioning it was thought to be a case of sour grapes.
Many people thought that round went to the PM, who was by then desperate for a shot in the arm. But now that the moment has passed, we need to think seriously about the Lahore II bonhomie, particularly since the experience of then PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the aftermath of Lahore I was also very painful.
If the theatre of a few hours was poised on some hard work that had been done by the NSA with his newly appointed counterpart during their meeting in Bangkok, or by the foreign minister during her trip to the neighbouring country, we could have persuaded ourselves that something substantive was finally underway. But questions persist because of the PM’s repeatedly spoken words that were meant to send the signal: “Desist or perish”. Talks and terrorism can’t go together, we heard the PM say.
We believe that something far-reaching had to have happened for the PM’s posture to melt into gifts of saris and shawls, safas and clasped hands, not to mention the gesture of touching the feet of his host’s mother. Was that a personal version of a no-war pact? Was this honest accommodation between two well-meaning leaders? Was it compulsion due to the looming threat of worldwide jihad by the Islamic State? The history of the past 18 months doesn’t suggest an answer. Rather, there were clear signals of a hardening position. There was no give from Pakistan on Hafiz Saeed or others who have traumatised India. Could it be that a desire to clasp a legacy prompted the PM to drop assiduously collected jingoist baggage in favour of a new leaf of peace? Interestingly, trigger-happy TV channels praised the PM but took potshots at the Pakistani establishment as though the betrayal had already begun.
Peace with Pakistan will depend on our understanding of what drives it, as indeed our ability to get it to understand our worldview. There are some fundamental truths that we both should have little problem in understanding: That we can’t choose our neighbours or, indeed, rewrite history. All that remains is to ask what we can do with the situation we find ourselves in. Pakistan continues to make the mistake of looking at India as a Hindu country and seeking Kashmir on account of its Muslim majority.
But some of our worthies seem to understand India no better when they periodically propose sending off Indian Muslims to Pakistan. Whatever the two sides talk about — terror, trade, territory, riverwater, visas — we will be skirting the real issue unless we try to understand each other’s idea of self. Pakistan must be made to understand the idea of India. Equally, we must appreciate the idea of Pakistan beyond the two-nation theory that we roundly rejected in 1947.
Watching the warmth, real or makebelieve, between our PMs, one could not but wonder why it was reserved for someone once seen as an enemy. A fraction of it used on home adversaries might have got Parliament to function more effectively and many useful decisions might have been taken. But more than that, real progress with Pakistan is hardly likely if we remain a bitterly divided nation. There is as much work to be done by Modi at home as at the diplomatic table.
One must be honest and admit that whilst hardliners in Pakistan are unable to forget the unfinished agenda of Partition, compounded by their belief that India bifurcated Pakistan in 1971, there are hardliners in India — in Modi’s own party — who cannot stop blaming Muslims for Partition. In both countries, sensible people will never let hardliners succeed, but the fact remains that the latter have delayed progress towards lasting peace between the two countries.
We have long been told that the Pakistan army controls its foreign policy and that much of its army’s financial clout is derived from keeping a red flag up on India. We also know that the ISI is the all-powerful arm of the military and has a virtual life of its own. But that is where something seemed to have changed because the fire that the Pakistan establishment used to trouble India suddenly threatened to engulf them. The sporadic clashes between Islamic extremists and the military during Pervez Musharraf’s tenure took the shape of a full war under the command of current army chief General Raheel Sharif. But will the terrorist groups that target India get a similar treatment from the army?
The real issue of Kashmir is hardly likely to be resolved in the near future. It will require real statesmanship on both sides, rather than cameo performances of camaraderie interrupted by negative asides. Statesmen articulate their beliefs and, when needed, defend them against contrary points of view, not simply present them as miracles to the wide-eyed. We are still to see that from our PM. Modi could begin with his own cabinet, then go on to his party and somewhere touch base with the Opposition as well. Right now, the impression is that we have no clearly thought-out policy.
Of course, in sharing the Pakistan policy, the government will inevitably encounter resentment about how the BJP behaved with the UPA. Dealing with that resentment is not simply a matter of placating the disappointed but also an opportunity to guide the nation towards greater maturity. The BJP must also understand that in the service of the nation, it is not a bad thing to be able to say sorry for your mistakes.