External Affairs

In Fresh Opening to Pakistan, Sushma Swaraj Set to Travel to Islamabad for Afghan Meet

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif talk in Paris on the sidelines of the CoP 21 summit on climate change on November 30. Credit: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif talk in Paris on the sidelines of the CoP 21 summit on climate change on November 30. Credit: PTI

New Delhi: In a move that could potentially mark the resumption of high-level  contact between the foreign offices of India and Pakistan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has decided in principle to send External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to Islamabad for a December 8 multilateral meeting on Afghanistan.

Pakistan extended a formal invitation to Swaraj three weeks ago for the ministerial meeting of the Heart of Asia-Istanbul process – a 14-nation initiative dedicated to regional cooperation in Afghanistan – but Modi was undecided on whether to send Swaraj to Islamabad or peg India’s participation at a junior level.

In the aftermath of the ill-fated National Security Advisers-level talks between India and Pakistan in August,  the NDA government has adopted a policy of not encouraging bilateral meetings or contacts between the two sides on any subject other than terrorism. Since India was represented at the Heart of Asia ministerial meeting in Beijing in October 2014 by junior foreign minister V.K. Singh, the PMO feared deputing Swaraj to Islamabad might send a wrong signal to the Pakistani side that New Delhi was ready to engage again. In the absence of any concession from Islamabad, this was something Modi was reluctant to do.

Paris icebreaker

However, his brief but warm chat with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan on the opening day of the COP21 climate change event in Paris on November 30 appears to paved the way for a rethink.

For now, all that senior South Officials are prepared to say is that Swaraj will likely be attending the Islamabad meeting, joining ministers and envoys from the other 12 other countries which are part of the Heart of Asia process and the 17 which are “supporting countries” in discussing ways to help Afghanistan.

But once she is there, it is more than likely that she will meet with her counterpart, Sartaj Aziz. Aziz, who was recently divested of the charge of National Security Adviser, remains Foreign Policy Adviser to Sharif and is Pakistan’s de facto foreign minister. Pakistan’s NSA is Lt Gen (Retd) Nasir Khan Janjua.

Swaraj’s impending visit also assumes significance in the light of the upcoming Saarc summit, which Pakistan is scheduled to host in January 2016. The joint statement issued by India and Pakistan after the Ufa prime ministerial meeting in July 2015 noted that Modi had accepted Sharif’s invitation to attend the summit.

Until today, prospects for the Saarc summit were seen in the region as receding in the face of India’s refusal to engage Pakistan except in the singular dimension of terrorism. The challenge for Modi, of course, was that he had said South Asia and Saarc would be a priority for his foreign policy and if the summit were postponed essentially because of the ongoing Indo-Pak standoff, this would compromise his own explicit regional agenda.

Indeed, rejuvenating Saarc was the alibi Modi chose to use when he sent Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar to Islamabad in March 2015 to steer the bilateral relationship out of the corner into which it had been backed following the cancellation of foreign secretary level talks in August 2014.

Today, it seems, it is the quest for stability in Afghanistan that has given India and Pakistan a new opening.

Regional process

Though India was not invited to a major international conference on Afghanistan organised by Turkey in January 2010 because Ankara chose to defer to Pakistani ‘sensitivities’ at the time, pressure from the Afghans themselves ensured that the ‘Istanbul process’ – when it was launched in 2012 – had all countries in Afghanistan’s immediate and extended neighbourhood as participants, including India.

The process envisages regional CBMs aimed at providing stability and prosperity in Afghanistan under distinct heads for which individual neighbours take the lead in organising sectoral meetings: disaster management (Pakistan and Kazakhstan); counter-terrorism (Turkey and UAE); counter-narcotics (Azerbaijan); trade, commerce and investment opportunities (India); regional infrastructure (Turkmenistan); and education (Iran).

Swaraj a hit in Islamabad

Swaraj’s last visit to Islamabad was in March 2002 – also a time of bilateral tension – when she was Information and Broadcasting minister in the NDA government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and travelled to Pakistan to attend a meeting of Saarc information ministers.

At the time, the two sides had not had any high-level contact since the December 13, 2001 terrorist attack on India’s parliament and their armies stood eyeball to eyeball.

Swaraj agreed to PTV’s request for a televised interview but laid down two conditions – that the interview be live and  unedited and that it be conducted in Urdu. Pakistani analysts subsequently praised her performance.

However, the Vajpayee government did not use Swaraj’s visit as an ice-breaker and continued with Operation Parakram – a strategy of ‘coercive diplomacy’ in which the army was mobilised and deployed along the border in an offensive formation. Tensions ran high for most of 2002 and 2003 before back-channel diplomacy led to two key breakthroughs: the ceasefire agreement of November 25, 2003 and a joint declaration in Islamabad at the Saarc summit of January 6, 2004 in which General Pervez Musharraf agreed “he will not permit any territory under Pakistan’s control to be used to support terrorism in any manner.”

  • ashok759

    For Pakistan to invite India to a conference on the future of Afghanistan is a very hopeful portent. EAM should certainly grace the event.

  • neeraj j

    What a ‘bold and strong’ PM promised to the nation with respect to Pakistan hasn’t materialized yet and on the contrary it looks like Pakistan has gained an upper hand if Indian Foreign minister is to travel to Pakistan after that much hulla bullu over no contact till terror is over.