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A step back

Publication Date : 27-08-2014

 

After what looked like a promising new start, India-Pakistan relations have seesawed back into familiar discord. Prime Minister Modi had opened new possibilities when he invited Nawaz Sharif among other leaders of the closest neighbours to his inauguration. Sharif came to the event, which was an important gesture from him, and all accounts suggest that the meeting between Modi and him outside the formalities of the investiture went well.

There were follow-up signs to raise expectations, the most important being the revival of official dialogue, after a break of a couple of years. Following this, the foreign secretaries of the two countries were all set to meet in Islamabad when Modi abruptly called it off, thus putting into cold storage something that his own initiative had done much to bring about. What caused this to happen and what could be its longer-term consequences are issues that have been under discussion ever since.

The provocation for calling off the talks was the Pakistan High Commissioner’s invitation to Hurriyat separatists from J&K to meet him just as the official talks were about to be convened. New Delhi regarded this as unwarranted interference in India’s internal affairs, and found it significant enough to warrant calling off the meeting.

Many in India applauded, as they tend to applaud any similar show of strong-mindedness directed against the neighbour, while others felt that though the invitation to Hurriyat was ill judged, it was of little practical consequence and should not have provoked so strong a reaction. This division of opinion in dealings with Pakistan is familiar, with some intent on showing adamancy towards the neighbour in the belief that this is the way to solve problems, while others take the view that there is no escape from engagement and dialogue. In the short time since he assumed office Modi has shown inclinations in both directions, initially giving the green light for talks and later putting on the brakes. Such veering from one tendency to the other is not unusual in Indo-Pak affairs, where the unexpected comes up all too often and unsettles well-laid plans for dialogue.

In view of the inherent changeability in the situation, it would be premature to conclude that the door to dialogue is now firmly locked for the duration. There will be more than one opportunity later this year itself for the leaders of the two countries to meet should they so desire; they are both expected to attend the forthcoming session of the UN General Assembly so they will be in New York at the same time and some believe that would be a good time for them to repair the damage, though right now that looks like nothing more than wishful thinking. But even if high-level contact is not feasible and exchanges remain at a low ebb, there is a good deal of cross-border activity which needs regular consultation. And the whole agenda of  ‘composite dialogue’ remains on the books, something that was first put together as long ago as 1996, has been discussed on many occasions, and remains a mutual commitment. Thus the structure of dialogue remains in place and can be revived whenever the two sides so desire. The present setback need not be decisive.

While it was Modi’s decision that the talks should be called off, one must also consider why the Pak HC found it necessary to invite separatist figures from J&K to come to see him. He would no doubt have been acting on instructions and would have been well aware that his invitation would create misgivings in New Delhi, though he may not have anticipated how strong the reaction would be. It cannot be gauged how and why it was decided to invite Hurriyat at a time when Modi was barely into his stride and had shown openness towards developing relations with Pakistan: to push J&K affairs on him in this fashion at this stage was to invite disagreement and failure; and it only expanded the disagreement to argue as the HC did that there was need to go beyond governments and bring  ‘all stakeholders’ into the frame.

Beyond bilateral matters alone, one needs to note the emphasis on regional affairs associated with Modi from the time of his assumption of office. He is almost unique among India’s Prime Ministers in directing attention to the neighbourhood before reaching out to the wider world, and it has seemed that this may well become the hallmark of his foreign policy. Among his predecessors perhaps only I.K.  Gujral gave comparable prominence to regional and neighbourhood affairs with his ‘Gujral Doctrine’.  In pursuit of this goal of stronger regional emphasis, India would need to work together with all the near neighbours, especially Pakistan, so that the region becomes the launching-pad for the kind of active foreign policy to which Modi seems to aspire. There is thus a significant strategic dimension to regional affairs.

As expected, Pakistan has been disappointed and also angered by the brusque cancellation of the official talks. But it is presently engulfed in a political crisis that has left little room for anything to do with external relations.  Opposition leader Imran Khan, supported by prominent cleric Tahir ul Qadri, has brought activity within the government to a standstill and the centre of Islamabad has for days been at the mercy of large numbers of demonstrators demanding the removal of the Prime Minister. The prolonged confrontation has had the effect of weakening the structure of the state itself, or so one would judge from the unceasing commentary in the Pak media on the features and the significance of these events.

While it is difficult to judge where all this might be leading, one of the important results of the widespread confusion and disorder is that the army has once more become a visible factor in the affairs of state. For some time now, the army has kept a low profile in Pakistan, deferring to Parliament and the law courts. But now it has become more visible, drawn in perhaps by what looks like the inability of the civilian leadership to bring matters under control.

With these developments, bilateral as in the cancellation of official talks, and internal to Pakistan, where turmoil has left little space for initiatives abroad, what looked for a while like a bright dawn in India-Pakistan affairs has faded rather rapidly. No early improvement seems likely but a little further down the line, if matters settle down as many people hope they will, a fresh effort to address the age-old issues may become possible.

(The writer is India’s former Foreign Secretary)

 

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