External Affairs

Talks Ball is Back in Play But Modi, Nawaz Need Courage to Move Forward

Ufa steps mark the resumption of a dialogue which allows each side to claim it got the other to move forward a little

Ufa: Prime Minister Narendra Modi and  his Pakistani Counterpart Nawaz Sharif meets deleagation during a meeting at UFA in Russia on Friday.PTI Photo (PTI7_10_2015_000009B)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif meet  in Ufa,  Russia on Friday.PTI Photo

Meeting in Ufa, Russia, on Friday morning, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif have decided to give a fresh start to the stalled bilateral dialogue process, tasking their respective national security advisers with meeting soon “to discuss all issues connected to terrorism.”

Deferring to each other’s political vulnerabilities, the two foreign secretaries took turns to read out that portion of a brief joint statement which would best explain to their respective domestic audiences the sudden return to dialogue. The two prime ministers, Pakistani foreign secretary Aizaz Ahmed Chaudhry said, “agreed that India and Pakistan have a collective responsibility to ensure peace and promote development. To do so, they are prepared to discuss all outstanding issues. Both leaders condemned terrorism in all its forms and agreed to cooperate with each other to eliminate this menace from South Asia.”

Chaudhary’s reference to “all outstanding issues” will be presented back in Pakistan as Sharif getting Modi to agree to talk about Jammu and Kashmir.

Apart from announcing the NSA-level meeting on terrorism, Indian foreign secretary S. Jaishankar said the two sides will also take the following steps: early meetings of the DG, Border Security Force and DG Pakistan Rangers followed by that of the Directors General of Military Operations; a decision for release of fishermen in each other’s custody, along with their boats, within a period of 15 days; and a mechanism for facilitating religious tourism.

Lastly, and most importantly from the Indian perspective, “both sides agreed to discuss ways and means to expedite the Mumbai case trial, including additional information like providing voice samples.” It was also announced that Modi has agreed to visit Pakistan in 2016 for the SAARC summit.

Taken together, the steps announced in Ufa mark the resumption of a political dialogue which allows each side to claim it got the other to move forward a little.

Nawaz Sharif can say he has forced Modi to abandon his government’s rigid stand that talks can take place only if Pakistan creates an atmosphere of harmony by “keeping away terror and violence.” The situation on the ground today is no different from what it was in May when External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj mentioned that condition. Or indeed from what it was like earlier this year after the incidents of firing along the Line of Control drew down. Even if Kashmir has not been explicitly mentioned in the joint statement or the immediate steps to be implemented, the Pakistani PM can claim credit for getting Modi to accept that he has an unconditional obligation to discuss the issue.

At the same time, there is enough diplomatic cover in the Ufa statement for Modi to claim he got the Pakistani side to bend a little. After all, the focus for the first high-level discussion to follow is going to be terrorism, a subject that India believes is the most important one. Pakistan has also conceded the possibility that voice samples of the terrorists and their accomplices involved in the 26/11 attack on Mumbai could be entered as evidence in the trial it is conducting of Lashkar-e-Tayyaba commander Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi and others. On the flip side, of course, Modi will be hard pressed to answer why he wasted a whole year when these subjects could and would have been discussed and perhaps even agreed upon had he not cancelled the August 2014 meeting of the two foreign secretaries in a moment of political weakness. Fortunately for the Prime Minister, his critics are likely to assail him for “selling out” on terror rather than criticising him for indecisiveness.

So where do we go from here? The Ufa agreement caps a year of great hope, uncertainty and even turmoil in the relationship between India and Pakistan but will far require greater consistency and political courage by both Modi and Sharif if it is to be followed through.

So fraught and accident-prone have ties between the neighbours been that dialogue is needed not just to move relations forward but also to simply ensure that there is no deterioration. Diplomacy across the Radcliffe Line abhors a vacuum and whenever the two sides stop talking, the resulting space gets quickly filled by vitriol. It is not a coincidence that the past few months have seen senior leaders in both countries say some very absurd things.

One immediate payoff from the Modi-Nawaz meeting is going to be a decrease in the unhelpful rhetoric that has seen ministers on the Indian side threaten Pakistan with military action and even acts of terror, and Pakistani political and military figures accusing India of organising terrorist attacks inside their country.

Of the two leaders, it is Pakistan’s PM who is politically more vulnerable. Though the statement is likely to have been discussed with the Army chief, Ejaz Haider, the well-known Pakistani commentator, told The Wire that the front-loading of Indian concerns like terrorism and 26/11 and the absence of reciprocity towards Islamabad’s core issues could turn Ufa into a “Sharm-el-Sheikh moment for Nawaz Sharif.” He was referring of course to the Egyptian resort where Manmohan Singh and Yusuf Gilani met in 2009, producing a joint statement that Singh’s critics in India described as a sell-out because of the references it made to terrorism and dialogue and to Pakistani accusations of Indian interference in Balochistan.

Modi is politically far more secure, not just because of his parliamentary majority but because he does not really have to worry about carpers and critics within his party or the sangh parivar. So far, sadly, he has acted as leader who doesn’t know his mind on Pakistan, flip-flopping from engagement to jingoism with nothing to show for it at the end of 14 months. Ufa could mark a turning point, provided he doesn’t get spooked by the jingoism of the opposition and sections of the media.