We are engaging Pakistan,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said 10 days ago, as he addressed top military commanders on board the aircraft carrier Vikramaditya, “to try and turn the course of history”. His unscheduled visit to Lahore on Friday — the first by an Indian prime minister since 2004 — shows that this ambitious aim may not be confined to words alone. There was no compelling official need to stop over in Lahore to greet Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on his birthday. Instead, the decision was intended to signal India’s commitment to the peace process that began when the two countries’ national security advisors and foreign secretaries met in Bangkok earlier this year.
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Former PM Manmohan Singh famously dreamt of a South Asia in which “one can have breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore and dinner in Kabul”. Singh never made it to Pakistan though, his hopes of visiting his ancestral village of Gah derailed by the carnage of 26/11. By making a journey not dissimilar to that Manmohan Singh dreamed of, Modi has made clear he is willing to risk political capital to make peace. The prime minister and his advisors, after all, are aware that future terrorist strikes by Pakistan-based groups will invite savage criticism — but have decided the risk is worth taking.
That a civilisational understanding appears to underpin the prime minister’s thinking — an understanding, interestingly, not dissimilar to that of Manmohan Singh — is significant, too. In his speech to Afghanistan’s parliament earlier in the day, delivered on the occasion of the inauguration of its new, Indian-built building, Modi noted that in “the achievements of Mauryan Empire or Sher Shah Suri, we see connectivity that we now aspire to rebuild”. That is why, he said, he hoped that “Pakistan will become a bridge between South Asia and Afghanistan and beyond”.
In Afghanistan, Modi will have heard how Pakistan’s military leadership had chosen not to rein in the Taliban, backing down on past promises in the face of intense diplomatic pressure. Fearful of the consequences of confronting the Taliban — notably, the prospect that they could support anti-Pakistan jihadists — Islamabad has instead chosen to stand by the sidelines as they conquer ever-greater swathes of rural Afghanistan. Islamabad has shown no inclination, similarly, to roll back the gargantuan infrastructure of the anti-Indian jihadists it long patronised, like the Lashkar-e-Taiba or Jaish-e-Muhammad. But Modi’s experience has shown him that India has no good military options to compel changes in Pakistan’s behaviour; each option comes with unacceptable costs to India, too. The path ahead is, clearly, full of hidden mines and booby-traps. Yet it must be walked, because all the others lead, with grim certainty, to a conflict neither country can afford.