If the media reports are correct, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj is heading for Islamabad next week to participate in the Heart of Asia conference on Afghanistan. Of course, it is evident that Swaraj herself is keeping her fingers crossed. What matters is that she didn’t rule out such a visit. That indeed points toward a decision-making process that bears the imprimatur of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. What emerges is that Modi’s 167-second conversation with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif in Paris on Monday is being followed through calmly, rationally to the logical next step. (See my blog Modi is tempting fate by accosting Sharif.)
From available indications, Modi’s overture to Sharif in Paris was far from an impromptu gesture, but was born out of his sweet silent thoughts (and political instincts) after surveying the dismal sight of the debris of the India-Pakistan relationship littered around the PMO, accumulated with such delectable ease through the short period of 18 months of his prime ministership.
If so, Modi is coming on his own, finally. A gifted politician like him is optimal that way — instead of being tutored, advised and shepherded by cautious, one-dimensional bureaucrats or aides. India’s relations with Pakistan are most certainly not the stuff of conventional diplomacy insofar as they are hopelessly entangled with our domestic politics and national policies in a unique way, and it is the political leadership who can sense their quintessence instinctively, far better than the bureaucratic establishment.
Indeed, Swaraj’s visit will be hugely symbolic because the backdrop of the conference in Islamabad next Wednesday that occasioned the Pakistani invitation is at its core going to be a make-or-break attempt at reaching a Pakistan-Afghanistan détente that helps kickstart the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Swaraj’s very presence in Islamabad — possibly, along with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani — will bear testimony to New Delhi’s goodwill towards the peace talks aimed at reconciling the Taliban.
A wrong turn that those in the driving seat in South Block took in the late nineties by wading into the Afghan civil war inevitably led to the zero sum game with Pakistan through the couple of decades that followed, and infinitely complicated the regional security. Today, as a responsible regional power, India simply cannot afford to stand in the shade, lost in thoughts, while robust efforts are under way jointly by the United States and China to encourage Pakistan to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table on one hand and to goad Ghani on the other hand to overcome the resistance within his camp by intransigent elements who oppose peace talks. The recent India-China joint statement on security testifies to the importance that our neighbors attach to cooperation with India over shared concerns.
The point is, India needs to accept that this is the way all civil wars end. If rumors are correct, Russian diplomats sat down with the Taliban representatives recently in Tajikistan. Simply put, there is an overpowering groundswell of opinion today that Afghanistan should never again become the revolving door of international terrorism. Such a course correction on India’s part doesn’t mean that this is the end of our ‘influence’ in the Hindu Kush. Far from it. In the ultimate analysis, Taliban have indigenous roots and their ‘Afghan-ness’ is bound to surface. All sections of Afghan opinion have valued friendship with India. The onus is on us to create positive synergy out of such friendship instead of frittering it away in futile great game enterprises.
However, the big question remains: Will a ‘Modi-led, Modi-owned’ Pakistan policy be capable of taking the leap of faith that is needed to transform the relationship, make it predictable and tension-free, and align it with the prime minister’s ‘development agenda’ and his vision of regional cooperation? To be sure, there will be resistance from within the political constituency that supports him — and to an extent displease some sections of the establishment. But Modi can overcome them. In reality, any effort to normalize India-Pakistan relations will go down well in the mainstream public opinion. No one raised dust, after all, that Modi accosted Sharif in Paris or sat down with him on a plush sofa, holding his hand, hardly three or four days after the seventh anniversary of the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai.
On the other hand, if one were to jettison the stereotyped thinking regarding Pakistan, it becomes apparent that the opinion in that country overwhelmingly favors normalization with India. No Pakistani politician shows interest in India-baiting as part of electoral politics. (So much cannot be said about our political elites!) Again, the ill-conceived one-upmanship by our functionaries to (over)interpret the absence of a direct reference to the Kashmir issue in the Ufa statement put Sharif on the defensive and he came under withering criticism at home for not having been ‘tough’ enough, but he keeps hoping, nonetheless, to pick up the threads of dialogue with India. Sharif is the best interlocutor under the circumstances that Modi could have, and the opportunity should not be lost.
Swaraj’s visit can provide the much-needed ‘thaw’ in the India-Pakistan tensions, leading to a resumption of discussions on all outstanding issues, including Kashmir. The few months’ time still available should be purposively utilized to create the foundation for planning Modi’s visit to Pakistan circa July next year for the SAARC summit meeting, and to make it a historic occasion in the politics and history of the subcontinent.