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Searching peace via Kabul and Lahore

  By Vijay Darda | 28-12-2015

For the last 68 years, dealing with Pakistan has been a major challenge for New Delhi. There is the border dispute on Kashmir, there have been four wars, and the two sides are nuclear armed nations. If these are the negatives, then the most important positive is the shared cultural history of the two neighbours. There is simply no other option, except to engage with each other meaningfully.

In prime minister Narendra Modi’s case there is the baggage of his being a Hindu nationalist, whose ideological proclivities rest in the concept of Akhand Bharat that primarily refuses to recognise the idea that Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh are separate sovereign nations. Much of his campaign rhetoric has echoed these views. So, he had shocked the world when he invited all the heads of the SAARC nations for his swearing-in ceremony in May 2014. More importantly, Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif responded positively to the invite and there was a hope for a new beginning in the India-Pakistan relations.

Of course, the months in office for prime minister Modi have been a roller coaster ride when it comes to foreign affairs. He has been building brand Modi, and there have been spectacular events in different cities across the globe, however his Pakistan initiative was not going anywhere. His breakthroughs with Sharif were not culminating into a sustained dialogue process. With one deft stroke in travelling to Lahore via Kabul, Modi has changed all that, and has scripted a new beginning. Surely, he has got the optics well under control. It does make a lot of sense for the two prime ministers to share a strong personal rapport, and as gestures go there could be nothing more powerful than wishing Sharif a happy birthday, blessing his grand daughter on the day of her marriage, and to top it all touch his mother’s feet in a time honoured gesture of respect. If there has been to be any measure of going the extra mile, then Modi has not left any lingering doubt. A Christmas date with a surprise offering has said it all.

On the face of it all this looks spontaneous, but some meaningful calculations are surely lurking in the backdrop. The official dialogue process may have been derailed, but the Sharif-Modi link can be seen throughout this period. There is the Kathmandu secret dialogue, there is the exchange at Ufa and then the brief meeting in Paris on the sidelines of the Climate change summit. Of course, these are happenings in the public domain, and we can be sure that there have been more exchanges between the two prime ministers that have been kept away from the public eye. It is now well known that external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj had a meaningful dialogue with Sharif in Punjabi when she was there in Islamabad for the Heart of Asia conference that focused on Afghanistan. After the Modi-Sharif encounter in Lahore, there is a renewed urgency in the relationship with the foreign secretaries slated to meet in Islamabad on January 15, and another one-on-one between the two prime ministers when they go to Davos for the World Economic Forum in the third week of January 2016.

The peace dividends for both the countries are enormous. More so, in the light of the fact that both countries recognise the threat that emanates to peace in their respective lands from the menace of terrorism and its linkages with Kabul. It is also obvious that if the same beaten track is followed by both the countries, then there can be no rewriting of the India-Pakistan-Afghanistan story. We have helped build the Parliament building in Kabul, but strengthening peace and democracy require more than just a structure. We must stay invested in peace, and with a process of deep rooted faith in its ultimate success.

Both Sharif and Modi have to accept that there is no way out of the India-Pakistan trap, except for peace. Only engagement, and nothing else would work. This would require that everything is invested into the peace process and all the negative signals are shunned. It is good that Modi has taken the courageous initiative to set out a different course, but then only the right atmospherics would not help. It would also require deeper moral consistency and faith in the chosen roadmap to stay the course.

The ghosts of the past would continue to haunt any India-Pakistan engagement and the real challenge would be to survive these roadblocks. We may have faith in our democratic process, but Pakistan is still building the edifice of the democratic structure. In such a situation, widening the process of multi-lateral cooperation through SAARC forums may offer a better way than immediately trying to resolve the pending issues. Slow but sure progress is the only way out. The key once again would be to ensure that whatever the circumstances, the dialogue process is not derailed.

Although solutions to India-Pakistan problems have been eluding us for decades, the fact remains that there is nothing intrinsically intractable about finding the right answers. Essentially, it is a question of approaching the issues with the right mindset and as various details about the Track-2 dialogue process have shown the solutions are just round the corner. Making the people to people approach work and starting off with encouraging religious tourism seems to be the obvious place to make a beginning. There is of course, the long history of deep mistrust between the two countries that prevents any ‘normalisation’ of the relations. As we know the status of the relationship is so bad, that we cannot even play cricket or send artists across the borders.

The military in Pakistan has its own logic about the conduct of the foreign policy vis-a-vis India. But it should be hoped that even the generals would realise that you cannot redraw borders by the use of force. At least for the Modi initiative to succeed, that is a necessary pre-condition. One hopes that at least this is one pre-requisite that has been fulfilled in the Christmas search for peace via Kabul to Lahore.

Before I conclude…

So, it’s bye bye 2015 and welcome 2016. I wish you all my readers a very Happy New Year and sincerely hope that the coming year fulfils all your hopes and aspirations. Let us all together turn a new leaf and build on the positives of the last year, while overcoming all the negatives.


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Searching peace via Kabul and Lahore


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