By Vijay Darda | 14-12-2015
The good news first. Our external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj has travelled to Pakistan. She is the first foreign minister from India to go to Islamabad after the long forgotten S M Krishna in September 2012. Better news still awaits us when in nine months Prime Minister Narendra Modi could well become the first prime minister (then in 13 years) to visit Islamabad. There is no doubt that the Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is all eager to lay out the red carpet for Modi.
So are we really in for the achhe din moment in the India-Pakistan relations? There are no marks for asking such questions in the context of India-Pakistan relations. For starters, we do not know as to what transpired between Modi and Sharif within that brief meeting on the sidelines of Climate Change Summit in Paris that saw the National Security Advisers of the two countries and the foreign secretaries have a ‘secret’ rendezvous at Bangkok, of all the places? After all if the two prime ministers agreed that the meeting should take place, then why not hold it in Islamabad or Delhi? What is that worries the two prime ministers back in each other’s home?
We can agree to postpone the answers to such questions, and perhaps just rejoice in the fact that India and Pakistan are back at talking, and that there is an agreement to resume the comprehensive dialogue process. Maybe when the external affairs minister decides to make a statement in the Parliament on her visit to Islamabad, she would be generous enough to share the details of what brought about a ‘change of heart’ in the two sides that facilitated her flight across the border? Or perhaps, she would prefer to gloss over the past and look ahead at the future, considering that she has indicated that Modi would be well on course to make that visit to Islamabad next year for the 2016 SAARC Summit?
To get the basics right, we would do well to remember as Mehbooba Mufti, the president of People’s Democratic Party, the party that rules Jammu and Kashmir along with the BJP has put it to so eloquently that India has to talk to Pakistan. As the then prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had said, we can choose our friends, but not our neighbours. Pakistan is our neighbour, and plain civility demands that we talk to each other. For whatever reason, when we lose focus of this issue and do not engage with each other, we do incalculable harm to each other. We have simply frittered away an opportunity that came after Sharif responded positively to Modi’s invite to attend the swearing-in ceremony in May 2014. The gains could have been substantial both in terms of time and movement on critical issues. But that did not happen and the hawks in Pakistan gained at our cost. We also repeated the same mistake after the Ufa breakthrough, and we can only hope that no such contention awaits proposed meeting of the foreign secretaries in January.
Even if the government of the day is loath to discuss the past, in any democracy it would be unfair if the people are not taken into confidence about critical issues involved in dealing with Pakistan. Matter of strategies may not be revealed, but the need to share the broad contours of all the overall approach cannot be over-stressed. Diplomacy is not something that is personal between the two leaders, and it is a matter affecting the lives and deaths of people in the case of Pakistan. We have gone to four wars, and Pakistan still continues to wage a low intensity war, that bleeds us by a thousand cuts.
For the BJP to explain the shift in policy is all the more critical, considering that as a political party it has been bitterly opposed to any engagement with Pakistan. So the basic question as to what has changed from not willing to host the Pakistani NSA on Indian soil to not just sending the external affairs minister to Islamabad for the Heart of Asia conference but to also encourage the resumption of the dialogue process needs to be answered in the public domain, and not through mere rhetoric; but in a strongly convincing fashion. A part of the good governance process is also to make the people feel confident about the virtues of the government’s policies, especially when these are marked by such shifts. The India-Pakistan dialogue process would also be aided by such transparency, instead of following the ‘government knows the best’ approach.
The issue of terrorism vis-a-vis Pakistan will always remain critical, and it demands a much more calibrated approach than simply not talking to Islamabad. The creative genius of the policy masters on security and diplomatic matters would be tested on the yardstick of crafting a blend that penalises Pakistan (more specifically the establishment) for using terror as an instrument of foreign policy without compromising on the peace dividends that accrue from increased people to people contact. Simply shutting the door is an unwise policy option. In fact, higher the intensity of the people to people contact, better the peace dividend. So, not playing cricket with Pakistan is not an option. Not letting Ghulam Ali perform in Mumbai is also not an option. So also letting Pakistan get away with Dawood is also not an option. It is not a case of either or. For India Pakistan to be good neighbours both things have to happen. The export of terror has to stop, and the flow of culture has to take place.
Both Modi and Sharif have to work with almost the same electoral time table, and the India Pakistan story has an impact on elections on both sides. Given that progress between the two countries is seldom measured by the usual milestones, they would have both achieved quite a great deal, if they can together at least stop the border hostilities between the two sides. The rest can follow, no one is in any tearing hurry.
Before I conclude…
All party birthday
In sync with his stature and style, Maharashtra is celebrating the 75th birthday of its best known politician Sharadrao Pawar with a series of events that are a testimony to his wide ranging and enduring achievements in public life. Befittingly, it all started at the Vigyan Bhawan in the capital with the President Pranab Mukherjee, vice-president Hamid Ansari, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, former prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh, Congress president Sonia Gandhi and leaders from the entire political spectrum lining up to wish him a very happy birthday. It has followed with an event in Mumbai, and some others are still in store. As we all join him in wishing a long and happy life ahead, our eyes are also focussed on what next for Sharadrao? He is certainly not given to resting on his laurels.