All's well that ends well
During his recent Kerala visit, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, addressing combined commanders conference on board aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya off Kochi coast, said India was engaging Pakistan to try and turn the course of history. Ten days later, the Indian Prime Minister was in the house of Pakistan counterpart Nawaz Sharif in Lahore sipping hot tea. “Breakfast in Moscow, lunch in Kabul, evening tea in Lahore and dinner in Delhi are 'such stuff as dreams are made on' for any statesman. Prime Minister Narendra Modi literally accomplished that feat. But his history making stopover in Lahore, which had the least substance, dominated the news robbing the glow of Moscow and Kabul,” says T P Sreenivasan, former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA.
Sreenivasan argues that the birthday diplomacy is a ‘false message’. “I call it a false message because there is no goodwill between India and Pakistan at present. A facade of friendship without actual friendship is harmful. As I have said, the focus of commentaries today would have been on the Moscow and Kabul visits and not on a meaningless visit to Lahore,” he says.
But the diplomats and Indian media are divided on the outcome of the visit or whether ground has been set to try and turn the course of history. A section of media is now busy probing more into the role played by a Mumbai-based steel tycoon, who according to reports is a personal friend of Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif whose family is also into the steel business through the Ittefaq group of Industries. But those aware of how diplomacy works find nothing new in the revelations as track two diplomacy and backdoor diplomacy have been going on for a long time.
Nonetheless, everyone was taken by surprise and caught off guard by the swift move made by Modi to restart the dialogue process between two countries. Two weeks back, Aditya Sinha, senior journalist who co-authored 'Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years' with former R&AW chief A S Dulat began his article in Newsminute: "Prime Minister Narendra Modi should not wait for the 19th South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit, to be held in Islamabad in September 2016, to visit Pakistan. If he is serious about the recent resumption of bilateral dialogue, he should go next month."
Was he surprised by the move of Indian PM?
“I was surprised, on two counts. One, I was skeptical that Prime Minister Modi really had his heart in pursuing peace with Pakistan. The fact that he reached out to Pakistan means that he wants to get something concrete out of a peace process and not have it remain just out of his grasp as it did for his two predecessors. Then, the fact that he reached out so soon was surprising. I thought something might happen in January because that's how long these things take through normal diplomatic channels. Modi, of course, did not go through the normal course and he is to be complimented for it, because if it benefits bilateral relations then it is a wonderful thing,” says Aditya Sinha.
Elaborating the point he made about the need for the Indian PM to visit Pakistan, Sinha says that that there are too many things that can go wrong in this particular relationship. “Leaving high-level contact off for too long enlarges the window of opportunity for the things that can go wrong. Parts of our own government, for instance, are least interested in the peace process -- the armed forces, the intelligence services, the political opposition. So a terrorist attack or an exchange on the LoC can make the process vulnerable unless high-level contact continues which defuses the tension and allows the process to continue, he adds.
'Modi goes to Pakistan'
The phrase "Nixon goes to China” is a historical reference to United States President Richard Nixon's 1972 visit to the People's Republic of China, where he met with Chairman Mao Zedong. The metaphor is often expressed as the observation "Only Nixon could go to China" or "It took Nixon to go to China" and is widely discussed in studies on diplomacy. During a live television and radio broadcast, President Richard Nixon had stunned the world by announcing that he would visit communist China the following year. Now, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi took to Twitter announcing he would visit Pakistan in a matter of hours! So is a new phrase in the making or will it drain like many phrases Modi team coined during his run up to the Parliament elections?
“Modi as we all know has got his own style. Theatrics is part of it. Foreign audience, domestic audience all these factors could be taken note of before the Pakistan visit. But if you ask me if anything substantial has been gained from the visit, then I would say ‘no’. The aim of the visit was also not that. Beyond eating Kebab and Jilebi with the family clan of Nawaz Sharif, did any actual dialogue took place between the two leaders? Before drawing a conclusion, what follows up after the show by the Indian PM should be watched,” says M K Bhadrakumar, former Indian ambassador to Uzbekistan and Turkey who served thrice in the Iran-Pakistan-Afghanistan Division in the Ministry of External Affairs, including as the Head of the Division in 1992-95.
Bhadrakumar, participating in the Mathrubhumi Super Prime Time discussion hosted by journalist Venu Balakrishnan, had also said as how in India-Pakistan relation always the forward process is top down. “Out of my experience, it is not bureaucrats; about 85 per cent to 90 per cent is decided in the Prime Minister level. So mutual trust between prime ministers are necessary. They should have a clear cut idea in which direction the relationship is heading. Without building the trust factor, the foreign secretary level talks cannot be carried forward. In my analysis, PM Modi reached out to Sharif to open up the dialogue process,” he said.
But Sreenivasan says that meeting between the two prime ministers at this stage may not serve any purpose. He points out that India has already made substantial concessions to Pakistan by agreeing to a 'comprehensive dialogue' without insisting on progress on trials of the planners and perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks.
“The Prime Minister's decision to drop by in Lahore for a birthday bash was, therefore, prompted by a desire to go down in history as an innovative statesman,” he adds.
According to him, both prime ministers had tremendous pressure from other countries to open up the dialogue process. “In fact, it is a message to the world that the two prime ministers shaped by their Lahore meeting. Both of them are under pressure from the US, the UK, France and now Russia to remain engaged, as they fear that India and Pakistan have embarked on a nuclear arms race. Recent reports in the Western press have been highlighting the nuclear danger on the sub-continent with Pakistan developing tactical nuclear weapons and India building thermonuclear weapons in secret,” said Sreenivasan.
High pressure to carry forward ‘Birthday Diplomacy’
When former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh faced pressure from his own party and the opposition, Modi is facing pressure from the larger Sangh Parivar and coalition partners of the NDA like Shiv Sena to refrain from any talks with Pakistan. It is no secret that the hardliners in the coalition and the BJP-RSS do not want a dialogue with Pakistan to resume without the neighbour taking concrete steps to hand over perpetrators of Mumbai terror attack. On the other hand, there is pressure from the international community on both the leaders to resume dialogues.
There are arguments that history has been created by Modi’s Lahore visit without doing justice to the history of nearly 70 years, which are rejected by those who see the plum in the cake of ‘birthday diplomacy’, like Aditya Sinha. “Seventy years have obviously not gotten us too far, so anything helps. And it is not only true but a tragedy that Dr Manmohan Singh, a wise and good man, was unable to overcome the pressure from his party, particularly after the Sharm el-Sheikh meeting soon after the UPA-II got underway. Modi's pressure is different -- it is not from the formal party structure but from the larger parivar and its more hardline elements, he says.
For those familiar with the subcontinent’s history, Modi’s Lahore visit signals continuity with India-Pakistan relations. Something started by Atal Bihari Vajpayee who was the last Indian prime Minister to visit Pakistan in 2004 before his infamous bus ride at the Wagah border with Sharif. “The Lahore bus trip was a major event that was backed up with a deal to start a historic bus service between the two countries. It was also a breakthrough because if you remember, the talks for a bus service came after a period of frost following the 1998 nuclear tests by each of the two countries,” he says.
But the Lahore visit by Modi did not have any strings of formality attached to it thereby minimising the need for any official announcement or any mutual agreement. “Modi's impromptu visit has definitively established that India is interested in peace, after Modi's initial year which only fostered pessimism. But it doesn't have any formal structure attached to it as the bus trip did, so sustaining it will be hard work. The bus trip was part of a process so that just had to be kept going, despite Kargil a few months later. Let's see what Modi's government follows this up with, in terms of events more substantive than happy photo-ops,” says Sinha.
As the Bard of Avon said, “All's well that ends well”. Let us hope that for the ‘Heart of Asia’ to pump goodwill to entire world, the meeting is a first step towards fostering peace and harmony in the region. Let us also be over-optimistic that on next September 17, Pakistan PM Sharif visits house of Indian PM Modi with a packet of Lahori sweets.