After boldly inviting Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for the inauguration of his government in Delhi, Narendra Modi must seek a new framework of engagement. Although the foreign office and the BJP are downplaying its significance, Modi’s surprise invitation to Sharif serves some important political purposes. It underscores the new political will in Delhi to take risks for peace. Second, by setting up an early meeting with Sharif, Modi has short-circuited what would have been endless hand-wringing in the BJP on whether, when, where and how the PM should talk to the Pakistani leaders. Third, Modi is telling the many Western busybodies, who are always eager to mediate between Delhi and Islamabad on the question of Jammu & Kashmir, that India can manage the Pakistan problem on its own.
Even more important, Modi is conscious that a sincere outreach to Pakistan will reassure the Muslim minority at home, so anxious about their prospects under the new government. Yet, there is no question that Modi will be tested, sooner rather than later, by a major terrorist incident. The attack on the Indian consulate in Herat last week was certainly a reminder. But unlike his predecessor, Manmohan Singh, Modi must learn to differentiate between Pakistan’s civilian leadership and the so-called “deep state”, comprising the military and intelligence establishments. Delhi limits itself by linking talks with Islamabad to the question of cross-border terrorism that is masterminded from Rawalpindi. Nawaz Sharif, like Asif Ali Zardari before him, has no power to stop future attacks on India; nor can he bring the perpetrators of the outrage against Mumbai at the end of November 2008 to justice.
India must engage with Pakistan’s civilian leaders at all times, while strengthening the national capability to prevent and deter future terror attacks. Delhi must find ways to unilaterally hurt those who target India rather than breaking off dialogue with those who seek cooperation with India. Recognising the limitations of Pakistan’s civilian leadership, Modi must explore with Sharif the scope for cooperation in a range of areas for mutual benefit — from trade liberalisation to confidence-building measures in J&K. The two sides must also agree on the mechanics of formal and back-channel dialogue between the two governments. Overall, the message from Modi ought to be a simple one. A confident India is now ready for practical engagement with Pakistan, with no great expectations of a near-term structural change in the bilateral relationship.