The worry, however, is that come election time in West Bengal and Assam, the electoral machine of the BJP may hijack the government’s Pakistan policy once again
The December 6 Bangkok meeting of the National Security Advisers of India and Pakistan was not surprising, coming as it did after the handshake between the prime ministers of the two countries on the sidelines of the climate summit in Paris on December 1. There was already much speculation on the prospects of another volte-face by Narendra Modi on his Pakistan policy, as well as on the issue of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s likely visit to Islamabad this week for a regional conference. The Bangkok meeting merely raised by several notches the decibel level of debate and interest in the reason behind this latest twist in the ties between the two countries.
The NSAs ‘secret’ meeting is the third time that such a sudden engagement has been initiated, the earlier occasions being Modi’s invitation to Nawaz Sharif to attend his prime ministerial swearing-in ceremony in May 2014, and subsequently their meeting and joint statement in Ufa, Russia, in July 2015. In both cases, the bonhomie was transient if not illusory; normally, prior to a summit, the wrinkles are ironed out before the leaders commence their engagement to ensure that no pre-conditions emerge during the follow-up. This practice was not followed in for either the Delhi or Ufa meetings.
In the light of all that has happened over the past year, it is not clear why the promised meeting of foreign secretaries after the May 2014 Modi-Nawaz handshake did not take place. We can only conjecture that domestic electoral considerations – with elections in Maharashtra, and Jammu and Kashmir looming over the political horizon – played a major role. The promise held out by the July 2015 Ufa meeting dissolved even more rapidly, with debate flaring up in Pakistan, perhaps due to some gloating in the Indian camp over the omission of Kashmir from the joint statement, that Nawaz had made a strategic error. India worsened the situation by insisting that the real takeaway was that terrorism had to be discussed first, before Kashmir or any other issue.
The Ufa joint declaration left much scope for misunderstanding. Opening with a broad statement of intent that the two countries had a ‘collective responsibility’ to ‘ensure peace and promote development’, it went on to conclude that ‘to do so, they are prepared to discuss all outstanding issues’. The next paragraph does not begin by saying that to facilitate that task terror must be addressed first. It merely talks of cooperation to ‘eliminate its menace in South Asia’.
If there had been any verbal agreement on the sequencing, it should have been made obvious well before August – when Sartaj Aziz, who was then the NSA of Pakistan, was due in Delhi – that Pakistan was focusing on the first paragraph of Ufa, while India felt the second took precedence. The error on India’s side was compounded when, instead of quietly postponing the Aziz visit, Swaraj was fielded to conduct megaphone diplomacy. She laid down new red lines that India would only discuss terror, and that the Hurriyat would have to be sidelined by Pakistan, ruling out any meeting in an off-shore location.
Since then, it is clear that both nations have recalibrated their positions to make the Bangkok meeting possible. Firstly, with the meeting being away from Delhi, the Hurriyat factor was taken out of the equation. Secondly, as indicated by the brief joint statement, the subjects discussed were peace and security; terrorism; Jammu and Kashmir, and other issues. The presence of the two foreign secretaries, who, under the stalled composite dialogue, were anyway dealing with the first and third issues, meant that the two NSAs, assisted by their respective diplomats, were discussing issues other than that of terror. Thirdly, by switching the previous NSA, Sartaj Aziz, a veteran politician and de facto foreign minister, with Lt Gen Nasir Janjua, a former Quetta-based corps commander dealing with Balochistan, Pakistan was presenting the Indian NSA, Ajit Doval with someone who would claim personal knowledge of the Indian interference in Baluchistan that Pakistan alleges and thus offer the Pakistani military the reassurance that its core interests would not be compromised.
It seems an attempt is being made to re-structure the composite dialogue, which dates from 1997 and has run its course. The only issues not included in the Bangkok joint statement, which were amongst the eight boxes of the old process are disputes such as Siachen and Sir Creek, besides the eighth point that spoke of ‘promoting friendly relations’. Unfortunately, this deconstruction and restructuring could have been attempted without the flip-flops and heated rhetoric that we have seen over the past 18 months.
The worry, however, is that come election time in West Bengal and Assam, the electoral machine of the BJP may hijack the government’s Pakistan policy once again. Sushma Swaraj’s visit is not about substance, as it comes too soon after Bangkok, but about signalling goodwill. It may be too soon to read the Pakistani media regulator’s move to ban the broadcast of a Hafiz Saeed rally as the start of a process to marginalise the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba chief. Nevertheless, there is a rekindling of hope on both sides of the border that both governments may have imbibed the lesson of an old Urdu phrase ‘der aaye durust aaye’ – better late than never.
K.C. Singh is a former Secretary, Minister of External Affairs