India and its Neighbourhood

Fresh Air of Rapprochement

29 May, 2014    ·   4472

Shujaat Bukhari commments on Narendra Modi's invite to the heads of SAARC countries to his swearing-in ceremony

Shujaat Bukhari
Shujaat Bukhari
Editor in Chief, Rising Kashmir
Much before he took over as the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi hit the diplomatic ground with a master stroke. He invited all the heads of South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries to witness his swearing in ceremony, not only to make it a grand event after a stunning victory but also to open up a new chapter in the Indian foreign policy. Modi’s election plank was centered around good governance and development and during his campaign he didn’t give a whiff about what he thought about dealing with the neighbours. Occasional “rhetoric” vis-a-vis Pakistan in which he would often say that “talks and terror” could not go together was the only reference that came in TV interviews.

But the way he reached out to all SAARC countries and particularly the bitter neighbour – Pakistan, it surprised not only his critics but also his own party men who would have “hoped” to see a more belligerent Modi. Not only have been the relations on edge with Pakistan, but New Delhi has not been doing well with Bangladesh and even with Sri Lanka. For inviting Sri Lankan president Rajapakse to the swearing in ceremony, AIDMK, the powerful ruling party in Southern state of Tamil Nadu boycotted Modi’s oath ceremony; so did the main opposition in the state— the DMK. Interestingly there was no opposition to Modi’s gesture to invite Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, albeit with a mild reaction from Congress. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s absence was significant though she was represented by the Speaker and had plans to travel to Japan.

Though Prime Minister Modi held brief and customary bilateral meetings with all the heads of SAARC countries, the focus, however, was on his meeting with Prime Minister Sharif. Nothing much could have been expected from the meeting but both the PMs, who come from completely diverse backgrounds and understanding, at least knowing each other is the positive beginning. In last 10 years the Indian Prime Minister could not take up a single visit to Pakistan and for six years there has been a deadlock in bilateral dialogue, though with intermittent meetings here and there. Both New Delhi and Islamabad have reached near some significant agreements such as liberal visa regime and stronger trade and economic ties, and likewise the Pakistan cabinet has given nod to Most Favoured Nation status to India but awaits a formal announcement. These measures have not been formalized as it was none other than BJP that wanted Congress to “teach Pakistan a lesson”.

Now that Modi has apparently departed from that “slogan” and reached out to Pakistan as well (in the camouflage of broader SAARC idea), the process could be taken forward. In 2010, Dr Manmohan Singh gave an impression that he was keen to move forward with a positive approach with Pakistan but he lacked political will and even the legitimacy. Being from the minority community, he did not wield the power of being the powerful and then his tenure was dominated by blackmail by coalition politics as also hard posturing by BJP. He could not come out from the hangover of Mumbai-2008 attacks as he was pestered to make Pakistan bend on knees to punish the perpetrators of that crime. The whole process was made hostage to the results of investigation on Mumbai. Ironically, Modi could get out of the shadow of massacre in Gujarat and earn goodwill of majority of Indians who sent him to the highest office.

Nawaz’s bold step:
While Modi played a master stroke, Nawaz too did not fail in dismantling his critics, particularly a section of jingoistic media in India that he was not in control of Pakistan. Despite the fact that Pakistan army has a major say in the affairs of country, Nawaz’s decision to attend the oath ceremony was also coup by the civilian government in Pakistan. He did take Army on board in accepting the invitation but at the end of the day he wrote yet another chapter in the bilateral relations. As on today he had no reason to believe someone who comes with a hard-line background. But Nawaz also recognized the “peace overtures” of Modi and moved forward to keep with his repeated assertions that he wants peace with India. He did this in the backdrop of intense opposition from extremist groups within Pakistan, who wanted to dictate him on relations with India. Notwithstanding the fact that Kashmir remains the core issue between the two countries but to address that, an atmosphere of amity has to be created and that can only be possible when both countries start talking. For Nawaz Sharif it was a risky decision, as back home many sections will ask him “What did you get in return”? as was the case with former President General Parvez Musharraf when he returned from Agra. But this time the focus has to be on building a mechanism to take the dialogue on improving relations forward. And for that Nawaz did move half way and it remains to be seen whether Modi will reciprocate and not abandon the process just as an incident will take place on Line of Control or that Mumbai will continue to dominate the discourse with Pakistan.

Modi’s legitimacy:
To set the tone of his foreign policy with a regional agenda was not something that Narendra Modi did purely out of love for the neighbours. It also has a lot to do with his image building before rest of the world. Even as he came with a huge mandate to rule India, Modi is still seen (at least by a section in Western press) as someone who was complacent with the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat. His main challenge is to redo his image at the international level. His acceptance as a ruler who would be inclusive is something he will work on to address the concerns of the International community. That is why he began by surprising his critics who were not expecting him to begin the foreign policy engagement and also had concerns that Modi may start by sending a tough message to a bitter neighbour like Pakistan. But obviously he would not like to remain in isolation, and for an India he has in mind he needs to shun the hard-line ideology and emulate Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Though it is difficult to judge him by just this first step, it is nevertheless a new beginning in the relations of two countries, which has been possible by equal sense of maturity. The road is long ahead with many bumps, but in case both the democratically elected leaders are serious and sincere, India and Pakistan have a space to go together in resolving contentious issues such as Kashmir. BJP has an advantage of not being questioned as far as the nationalistic ideology is concerned but Sharif has more challenges back home. His home work to take Army on board was the right step. But Modi also has to shun the baggage of being a hard-liner for the greater good of region.

Take away:
Much against the backdrop of both governments preferring to keep it low profile, the bilateral meeting has not failed. India was cautious in summing up the outcome but PM Sharif himself was positive saying that it could turn into a historic opportunity and both the leaders could overcome the legacy of mistrust and misgivings by working for peace and stability. However, the Indian Foreign Secretary did talk about raising the issue of terrorism, which means that contours of the dialogue remain same. Nevertheless the agreement that Foreign Secretaries would meet to further the process of cementing the trust could be seen as the take away from this meeting.

By arrangement with Rising Kashmir