The External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj should consider herself to be an exceptionally lucky politician to have got away without even a minor scratch after making the suo moto statement on the government’s decision to resume dialogue with Pakistan. Without doubt, if India had a functioning parliament, Swaraj would have had to face a barrage of questions from the opposition.

Perhaps, Swaraj would have herself levelled withering criticism at her predecessor Salman Khurshid for making such a policy statement in the parliament when she was in the opposition. She would have probably accused Khurshid of speaking as if he were Pakistan’s foreign minister.

The extraordinary thing about the suo moto statement is that it stubbornly refuses to throw light on what actually would have prompted Prime Minister Narendra Modi to blink and take the U-turn in the government’s hardline approach to engaging Pakistan in dialogue. It glosses over the reversal of the government’s obdurate stance that terrorism is the only issue to be discussed with Pakistan.  The statement instead sheepishly explains something that was apparent to the whole world, namely, that “continued estrangement” with Pakistan posed a hurdle to regional cooperation and, secondly, that the government’s “sharp awareness” that the issue of terrorism needs to be “clearly and directly” taken up demands engagement with Pakistan.

The evasive nature of the statement is self-evident – especially in the strategic ambiguity in relation to the willingness to discuss Kashmir issue in all its dimensions as a ‘core issue’ for Pakistan, and the mutual concerns of the two countries over perpetrating terrorist acts against each other. Instead, the government has spelt out its twin-objective in resuming dialogue with Pakistan as aimed at:

  • “removing hurdles in the path of a constructive engagement by addressing issues of concern”; and,
  • “exploring and establishing cooperative ties”.

The statement makes no reference at any point to any serious attempt on the part of India to resolve differences through negotiations with Pakistan on outstanding issues. The focus is instead on managing the tensions with Pakistan. Of course, the wording – “removing hurdles…” – is such that it lends itself to varying interpretations. (Our High Commissioner in Islamabad has given his own interpretation already – namely, that the return of Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir to India is the only real issue to be discussed in the Kashmir problem.)

The government’s dilemma is understandable. Its domestic constituency of right-wing Hindu nationalists feels devastated. The Hindutva folks, the hawkish ex-fauji-ex-diplomat brigade that plays to the gallery on the TV channels, sections of the security and foreign policy establishment – they are still reeling from the shocking TV visuals of the 167-second conversation between Prime Minister Modi and Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Paris and the downstream events since then leading to the incredible decision to commence the Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue with Pakistan. (According to latest Pakistani reports, Modi and Sharif may have another pow-vow in Davos next month.)

The government feels apologetic that the Modi Bhakts feel disillusioned and let down. It cannot afford to alienate them, because it may still have use for them on the India-Pakistan front or elsewhere – and, no doubt, forever in domestic politics. Indeed, Swaraj carefully drafted her statement to ease the pain of the Modi Bhakts. Make no mistake, the statement has the stamp of approval of the PMO.

Without doubt, the government will be called upon to do some tight-rope walking in the period ahead: on the one hand, ensure “uninterrupted” engagement with Pakistan by giving the impression to Islamabad that India will be reasonable and constructive and willing to make compromises in the interest of regional peace and stability, while on the other hand refuse to admit publicly those compromises that are inevitably expected of it in order to make this a ‘constructive engagement’. How far this trapeze act can be sustained remains to be seen. It is noticeable that not a single Modi Bhakt has so far mustered the presence of mind to pen an opinion piece to defend the ‘ice breaking’ 167-second historic conversation in Paris.

Again, there are spoilers on both sides – in India as well as in Pakistan – and they have not thrown in the towel. The government strategy seems to be that the dialogue would eventually create its own raison d’etre and the important thing at this point is to somehow get going, which is what the United States has been demanding from Prime Minister Modi, too.

The fact remains that Modi’s stock is very low in Pakistan. Importantly, Pakistani opinion doubts his sincerity and his intellectual capacity to handle great issues of war and peace. In a frank and forthright interview recently with the Newsline magazine, Ashraf Qazi Jahangir, a highly respected Pakistani diplomat who served in India as high commissioner and was a popular figure in the Delhi social circuit, said,

  • Oh yes, he (Modi) is most certainly a hawk. (Examine) his role in and his reaction to the Gujarat riots, his subsequent statements. His dream is a Hindutva dream. But deep down, it seems a hegemonic dream. To have a proper vision, you have to have an educated mind…(A. B) Vajpayee… instinctively had that imagination to understand why Pakistanis think the way they do. He recognized we have differences, but also knew that only through talks we could resolve these. Modi started making preconditions, which ensured those talks wouldn’t take place. So there was a complete lack of imagination, a complete lack of vision – tunnel vision, symptomatic of a lack of education. (Newsline)

And, Ambassador Qazi is an old ‘India hand’ and an old world diplomat. So, what lies ahead? Simply put, the government strategy becomes critically dependent on opening a back channel to Pakistan. The sooner the back channel diplomacy begins the better. All things concerned, the government is skating on thin ice. Without back channel diplomacy, the prospects for a ‘constructive engagement’ with Pakistan look rather bleak.

To be sure, the back channel must enjoy the full trust of Modi and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Obviously, this back channel diplomacy, from the Indian side, cannot be handled by the National Security Advisor or the Foreign Secretary. Ideally, the back channel should be someone who belongs to the Bharatiya Janata Party (but is neither a ‘hawk’ or ‘dove’) and possesses diplomatic skill and experience, and, most important, should be someone who enjoys direct access to Modi – and of course a familiar face to the Americans as well.