Rajnath Singh and Narendra Modi. Credit: BJP
New Delhi: When home minister Rajnath Singh leaves for a Saarc meeting in Pakistan next week, he will be laying the groundwork – in terms of justification – for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to participate in the South Asian leaders’ summit in Islamabad four months hence.
Singh will be going to Islamabad on August 4 when the situation in Kashmir is simmering and curfew restrictions are still being enforced.
The explanation on Raisina Hill for Singh’s trip during such fraught times in the border state, which Indian ministers have blamed on Pakistan, is that the visit to Islamabad has “no bilateral sub-text”.
“Our participation is in the context of our ‘neighbourhood first’ policy and our commitment to regional cooperation within the Saarc framework,” external affairs ministry spokesperson Vikas Swarup said on Thursday. Questions about whether Singh would meet his host in a separate meeting were batted away by stating that there was “no proposal”.
The Pakistani foreign office had a mirror statement. “On such occasions, there is an expectation of meetings on the sidelines. However, I am not aware if there is any between Pakistan and India on the table,” said the foreign office spokesperson Nafees Zakaria.
Despite the official line, it is unlikely that there will be no separate Indo-Pak bilateral meeting when Rajnath Singh is in Islamabad, even it is labelled as just a short conversation. The Pakistani foreign office has already indicated that if there is a meeting, then it will be raising its “issues of concern”, namely Kashmir.
According to South Block sources, India had already give a commitment that Singh would visit Islamabad for the Saarc interior ministers’ meeting last month, even when relations had not been normalised as India awaited the report from Pakistan on the progress of its investigations into the terror attack in Pathankot by Pakistan-based extremists.
There are few signs that there will be any material change in the India-Pakistan relationship in the next few months. The re-invented Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue
(CBD) can only start when Indian foreign secretary S, Jaishankar travels to Pakistan, meets his counterpart and signs on to the calendar of meetings.
Talk of a resumed dialogue was a direct result of Modi and Sharif’s huddle in Paris on November 30
last year, followed by the meeting of their national security advisors in Bangkok
and external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Islamabad for an Afghanistan conference in the first week of December, 2015. Of course, prospects never looked better as Modi hopped over to Lahore on Christmas eve to greet Sharif for his birthday and the wedding of his granddaughter. A week later, however, the Pathankot air base was attacked, leaving seven security personnel dead.
India has made it clear that the start of the CBD is linked to Pakistan showing movement in its investigation into the Pathankot terror attack. It is now four months since the Pakistan joint investigation team, which included ISI official, visited India and got restricted access to the sensitive forward Indian Air Force base at Pathankot. However, the JIT’s final report has yet to be released.
In between, Nawaz Sharif was away from his country for more than a month while he recuperated from heart surgery in London. Modi was, of course, in touch with Sharif, having spoken to him at least twice over phone – once before the Pakistan PM was wheeled into the operation theatre and again on Eid.
Even if the Kashmir rhetoric were to be rolled back by both sides and Pakistan could show some cosmetic progress in the Pathankot inquiry, there is no guarantee that another attempt will not be made to derail Modi’s Pakistan visit with a well-timed terror incident.
Indian officials have made clear that Modi’s visit to Islamabad for the Saarc summit on Nov 9-10 will take place even if the graph of India-Pakistan relations does not rise in the months ahead. Indian officials say that there is no possible way for Modi to skip a Saarc summit, especially since it would be seen as a negation of his “neighbourhood first” policy that he has championed assiduously.
“The PM will travelling for the Saarc summit. This is not a bilateral visit, and will not be projected as such,” said an official.
Of course, Modi will be holding bilateral meetings on the sidelines. At the Kathmandu summit in 2014, Indian officials ensured that the Modi-Sharif encounters were publicly limited to the retreat and a handshake at the end of two-day event. In Islamabad, there will certainly be no escaping a more substantive meeting with the leaders of the host country.