The conflicting voices and messages from government and politicians on the Kartarpur Sahib corridor have shown India in an unflattering light. On the one hand, Prime Minister Narendra Modi compared the decision to open the corridor to no less than the fall of the Berlin Wall. On the other hand, the Modi government seems unprepared or unwilling or both to grasp the Berlin Wall moment. Now External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, who declined Pakistan’s invitation to attend the foundation ceremony for the corridor, has thrown more cold water on its transformative potential.
Though she welcomed Pakistan’s decision to open the corridor “after 20 years” of India asking for direct over-the-border access to the shrine for Indian pilgrims, she has ruled out any expansion of this “faith diplomacy” to other areas. In response to a Pakistani official’s remark that Pakistan would invite India to the SAARC summit, Swaraj has made it clear that India is not in an expansive mood to let bygones go and start a new chapter, and reiterated the formula Delhi has used time and again with Pakistan — first stop exporting terror, everything else can wait. The dissonance was no less sharply underlined at the foundation ceremony on the Indian side, with Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu speaking the language of peace with Pakistan, and Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, despite having little or no say in the country’s foreign policy, threatening to hit back at Pakistan if it did not cease cross-border terrorism.
Pakistan, which is known to speak in different voices — its elected leaders pulling in one direction and its Army in another, as, for example, during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s famous bus journey to Lahore — has, on the other hand, put up a remarkably united front. At the Kartarpur ceremony on Wednesday, Army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa was present alongside Prime Minister Imran Khan as he laid the foundation stone for the corridor, with two Union ministers from India and a Punjab cabinet minister also in attendance.
Reading between the lines of the Indian leadership’s strategic incoherence on Kartarpur, it seems that despite claiming that it was originally an Indian proposal, Delhi was caught unprepared by Pakistan’s readiness to open the corridor. The contradictory statements recall the flip flop India did two months ago on the foreign ministers’ meeting in New York, first announcing that it would be held, then abruptly calling it off. The Kartarpur corridor presented the greatest opportunity in a decade to break the impasse with Pakistan. India should have signalled its assent to the holding of the SAARC summit. But in election mode, the Modi government, trapped by its own rhetoric, seems inadequate to the task of rising above itself.