My tribe of convenors of India-Pakistan Track II diplomatic conversations is forever looking out for windows of opportunity for resuming the official dialogue. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj robbed the little suspense there was of such an opening by declaring there will be no bilateral dialogue between prime minister Narendra Modi and Pakistan Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, on the sidelines of the meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) at Astana, Kazakhstan, today.
Of course, Modi is not going to be bound by anyone’s directive – he is the only leader in India today who has the courage and the bandwidth as well as the credibility to say and do anything, and get away with it.
So when he ran into Nawaz Sharif yesterday, as he was bound to do on the first day of the SCO meeting, he asked about Nawaz’s mother’s health. Predictably, the media went into a spin, wondering if this was an incipient first step in a renewed dialogue.
But let’s think about this carefully. Not only do opponents and antagonists in our part of South Asia remain cordial in the teeth of discord, Modi and Sharif have met several times in the past three years since Modi became prime minister.
Still, this is the first time since the PM embraced the Pakistan PM on his birthday on December 25, 2015 – and gifted a shawl to his mother – that the two leaders are meeting.
Within a week of that historic visit to Raiwind to celebrate Nawaz Sharif’s grand-daughter’s wedding, spoilers sent by the Rawalpindi establishment had attacked the IAF base at Pathankot.
The window of opportunity has remained shut since, as in this game of shut and open, a kind of snakes and ladders, snakes outnumber ladders.
Over 2016, things only got worse. The year was marked by another attack at the Uri base, India’s retaliatory “surgical strikes” into Pakistan across the Line of Control and the international boundary, serial beheadings, fire assaults across LoC and high-decibel trading of undiplomatic threats and allegations.
But it is not as if India has closed the doors and sealed the windows. Modi is eager to take Sharif into a tight embrace again. Finance and Defence Minister Arun Jaitley, briefing the press on his ministry’s achievements in the last three years, said: “Despite our best efforts to create an environment for talks, Pakistan has been scuttling the peace efforts”. Home Minister Rajnath Singh has expressed similar thoughts.
While on the Pakistan side, the de facto Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz was quoted as having indicated Pakistan’s willingness to talk provided India was interested.
Soon, though, the high-decibel tirade on nationalism took over. Television’s competitive frenzy which openly called for the “obliteration of Pakistan” and gave the Army a free hand to fight swamped the idea of any political initiatives.
After attending two India-Pakistan conferences in the last six months in Dubai and Kathmandu, it is clear that a mirror image is at play in Pakistan. The Pakistan Army is comfortable with its position as the senior partner in government without being involved in the daily minutiae of administration. The diarchy in decision-making is complicating the dialogue process.
The Pakistan Army is also stoking fears about India’s allegedly disruptive activities in Balochistan through people like Kulbhushan Jadhav, whom it accuses of being a spy. Pakistanis on the Track Two process say India is financing the Tehreek-e-Taliban terror outfit and intends to break up the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). India’s outreach to Baloch leader Brahamdagh Bugti is seen as proof of its designs to break up Pakistan, as Bugti has made several critical statements of Pakistan from his perch in Europe. A growing media cry in Pakistan amounts to “let’s teach India a lesson.”
Sushma Swaraj, meanwhile, attached three conditions for resumption of talks with Pakistan: Resolve all issues through dialogue; no third party involvement; and talks and terror cannot go together.
While all three conditions are impeccable in principle, the last provision is especially tricky; Pakistan has not been able to fulfil this even when Army chief Pervez Musharraf was president. Although infiltration came down by half at that time, violence in Jammu & Kashmir didn’t end completely.
The insurgency in J&K, meanwhile, has acquired definitive grassroots motivation and momentum. The tap of infiltration can be partially closed, not completely shut down, until progress is seen to be made inside Kashmir.
Some members at SCO have warned they do not want India and Pakistan to carry their baggage to Astana. At the 2014 Kathmandu SAARC summit, the Modi-Sharif handshake became the defining image. For us congenital optimists driving Track II talks, that Kathmandu Moment, hopefully replicated at Astana, will be a window of opportunity, a very welcome baby step.
Hopefully, that will encourage the two leaders to meet again, a few months later at the UN General Assembly. Hopefully, they will take their conversation forward at the postponed SAARC summit in Islamabad later in the year. As a former soldier, I believe that peace between us two hostile neighbours is the imperative of our times. As we say, hope dies last. Or, it never dies.