The dramatic diplomacy that unfolded across Afghanistan-Pakistan-India on Christmas day may be the first clear admission from Prime Minister Narendra Modi that dealing with Pakistan is not a simple task. And that his government’s ill-thought-out jingoism of its early months in power needs to be tempered with a mature and realistic approach if he has to focus on and achieve the grand slogans ranging from “Swachh Bharat” to “Make in India”.
Ever since Mr. Modi swept to power in the summer of 2014, his foreign policy has been packed mostly with spectacle and some boldness. He kicked off by inviting the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) leaders to his swearing-in, but soon let strident rhetoric lead the bilateral engagement with Pakistan. That early spark of hope was dashed by aggressive statements from the highest levels, and almost a wanton abandonment of restraint along the International Border (IB) and the Line of Control (LoC).
The initial freeze
Diplomatic engagements with Pakistan nosedived to embarrassing childishness. In August 2014, Foreign Secretary-level talks were called off after the Pakistani High Commissioner, Abdul Basit, met Kashmiri separatists; the same excuse was given a year later to call off National Security Adviser (NSA)-level talks in New Delhi. The Modi government’s strategy gave a new lease of life to Hurriyat factions, while adversely affecting the situation in the Kashmir Valley and along the IB and the LoC.
Militant infiltration and the occasional provocation from across the border have long been the routine, but the tough posture adopted in the wake of the April-May general election in India coincided with, if not resulted in, a dramatic rise in cross-border firings. Dozens of civilians and many paramilitary personnel were killed or injured, and normal life along the border was disrupted.
The pattern of terrorists sneaking into India from across the border and, within hours, launching attacks on a target close to the border, be it a security installation or a civilian target such as Gurdaspur in Punjab in July 2015, became more pronounced. In the Kashmir Valley, the fog of war intensified. While more local youth took to militancy, the mysterious rise of flamboyant militant commanders, their unusual escape from several encounter scenes, and final elimination after a few months of their stardom was a recurrent phenomenon.
The new aggressive phase wasn’t all that surprising, given the verbal volleys lobbed by Mr. Modi against Pakistan in the run-up to the 2014 general election.
Reality from South Block
The grand settings of Lutyens’ Delhi have an uncanny capacity to temper a ruler, even if he pretends to be a macho outsider. Mr. Modi is finally showing signs of realism that his neighbourhood policy cannot be complete without engagement with Pakistan. His efforts over the past few weeks, to rekindle India-Russia bilateral ties and to reach out to Pakistan, are signs that the former Gujarat Chief Minister is now finally becoming the Indian Prime Minister. Dramatic summits and humongous announcements do not often account for great diplomacy; it requires patience and perseverance.
Against the new mature phase of Mr. Modi’s diplomacy, it was, in hindsight, not a great surprise that he flew into Lahore from Kabul, on December 25, where the vagaries of violence are interspersed with buried egos of empires and signposts of India’s strategic interests. If Afghanistan wasn’t the real reason that prompted Mr. Modi about the need to calibrate his Pakistan policy, then he has to only walk a few yards from his office to an unnamed government bungalow close by, where the widow and children of former Afghan President Mohammad Najibullah have been staying for over a quarter century. It was from the remnants of the Afghan mujahideen who fought Najibullah’s forces that the Kashmir insurgency of the past three decades acquired sophistication, weapons and manpower, after New Delhi messed up its Kashmir policy.
Young warriors from madrassas of Pakistan who rode into Kabul to drag Najibullah by a pickup truck, in 1996, and hang him in the streets were soon to shelter the al-Qaeda. From this sponsorship by Pakistan, of non-state violence and regressive political Islam, the world got its new generation of terrorists and their broader ideology. From New York City’s World Trade Center complex to Paris’s Bataclan theatre, from Mumbai’s streets to the many bombed markets across India, the signatures of violence nurtured by sections of the Pakistani establishment and flourishing under its guidance cannot be ignored. Precisely for this and other factors, India needs to remain engaged with the Pakistani establishment.
Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh eras
Rhetoric about large-scale annihilations and macho responses to a dysfunctional democracy sound impressive in the heat of an election campaign but for a government, the challenge is to find ways to deal with the delinquent next door. Mr. Modi seems to have now picked up the gauntlet.
It is the realisation of the complexity of dealing with Pakistan that forced successive Prime Ministers to risk so much to engage with the neighbour, often without much success. Atal Bihari Vajpayee took the gamble of riding a bus across the contentious border, only to be faced with the Kargil incursion a few weeks later. It may be a mere coincidence that Nawaz Sharif was the one who hosted Mr. Vajpayee in Lahore then, and now Mr. Modi, despite his perilous survival in a military-dominated state.