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Can Modi Trust This Man?

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An ambitious Modi with Kashmir on his mind is desperate for a piece of history in South Asia but will Nawaz Sharif let him?

Professor Ayesha Jalal, author of books as stellar as The State of Martial Rule and Struggle for Pakistan, warns that “it is important not to exaggerate the importance of the thaw” in Indo-Pakistan relations simply because of a meeting between the two prime ministers on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit. The relationship remains deeply troubled by the weight of historical prejudices and suspicions, and there is no reason to believe that the meeting in Ufa, Russia, on 10 July, has changed anything. Jalal, Mary Richardson Professor of History and Director, Center for South Asian and Indian Ocean Studies at Tufts University, US, also believes that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi would certainly not bend over backwards to improve relations with Pakistan, “if these are not on terms dictated by India”.

Amid hyper-publicity of the meeting between the prime ministers of two warring nuclear-armed neighbours that have fought four bitter wars in the past, Jalal notes that both Modi and Sharif will have to learn to trust each other regardless of their mutual suspicions if they want to take a different path in relations between the two countries. “There is no indication that this is so, notwithstanding talk about economic development and improved trade relations,” she says, emphasising the historical reasons for suspicions between India and Pakistan. The two countries have not engaged in full-fledged peace talks since the 2008 Mumbai attack by 10 Pakistan- trained, heavily armed Lashkar-e-Toiba militants who went on a three-day rampage of destruction in India’s commercial capital, attacking various sites, including the main railway station, two five-star hotels, a crowded restaurant and a Jewish centre, killing 166 people and injuring hundreds.

Professor Jalal is perhaps right in playing down the significance of the Ufa moment, but then anything and everything about India and Pakistan generates tremendous interest even if the trigger is a joke in bad taste or an alleged cross-border love story. “This is so especially in India, thanks to the spread of social media and smartphones. We all know what happened when there was a fight on Twitter between two ladies, one from India and another from Pakistan,” says a Defence Ministry official, referring to the ‘tweet fight’ between the deceased wife of former Union Minister Shashi Tharoor and Mehr Tarar, a Pakistani journalist. A few days ago, former Bollywood star Raveena Tandon incurred the wrath of internet trolls for a five-month-old tweet related to a India-Pakistan World Cup cricket match. She had tweeted a joke, as sexist as it’s racist, suggesting that Pakistan give India Hina Rabbani Khar (the beauteous former foreign minister of that country) if they lose, and take Mayawati (former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh) if they win. She went on to argue that her tweet was not a racist one and that she had poked fun at the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader for being ‘corrupt’. That didn’t stop her from being labelled on the micro-blogging site as sexist, anti- women, anti-national and so on.

On 15 February, Tandon had tweeted:

Hahahah I like this one---
India Pak cricket match - Jeete to Hina Rabbani hamari.. Haare to Mayavati tumhari.

Now, whatever Jalal may say, pundits who have closely watched Modi’s foreign policy push believe that the Prime Minister means business when it comes to altering the political narrative in Kashmir, the key contention between the two neighbours. “That means holding parleys with Pakistan is part of a long-haul game for the new dispensation, which is committed to improving relations between the two countries by addressing key issues in a way no Indian leader may have done in the past,” says a government official close to the matter. “Engaging in talks with the elected head of state [Nawaz Sharif] is a normal way to do things. But Modi also has a grand political move on his agenda. The Prime Minister was only doing what was required on the diplomacy front by suggesting a joint statement at Ufa. He set the ball rolling. But the political gameplan is an altogether different one,” he adds. Defence Analyst C Rajamohan agrees with that view, suggesting that there is more to the Prime Minister’s efforts to cobble together an alliance in Jammu & Kashmir—with an unlikely bedfellow like the People’s Democratic Party (PDP)—than meets the common eye.

Points out a US diplomat who spoke to Open: “[Modi] is trying to connect with Pakistan through Kashmir, and through all ways possible. It is not that New Delhi doesn’t know Sharif has been weakened politically in a country that is largely controlled by the army and the intelligence agency [ISI], besides non-state actors.” According to this diplomat, who has closely followed the political and military dynamics of the Subcontinent, Modi intends to initiate an “economic revival of sorts” in the “troubled spot of Kashmir”. He is aware that an end to militancy in the region may be a far cry, but he expects successful implementation of a huge financial package for the state where the BJP is a ruling partner to “ameliorate the situation” and achieve an “emergence of normality”. The Centre has said that it would vastly increase the financial package set aside for the state’s development. The Modi Government has attracted criticism from the opposition National Conference, besides separatists, for using ‘money power’ to deflect attention from political issues. “Such remarks are natural, because the idea of such a package is meant to dent the influence of separatists and others who keep raising anti-India slogans in the wake of wastage of money allotted to the state over the decades,” says a government official who adds that the current government in J&K, especially its finance minister Haseeb Drabu, “knows the challenges only too well”. While presenting the state budget, Drabu had said that he was worried about high revenue expenditure (salaries, perks of government officials, etcetera) and relatively low capital expenditure (for development work) in the state. He had also announced many people-oriented schemes. The Centre, for its part, plans a series of infrastructure projects, including dams and new roads, to ensure effective delivery of services to the state’s hinterland. Rajamohan contends that the Prime Minister didn’t go for an alliance in J&K for nothing. “He has bigger plans,” he avers.

Of course, Prime Minister Modi is extremely ambitious on the foreign policy front. From inviting Sharif to his swearing-in last year to forging better ties with countries like China, Japan and the US, to enhancing trade links with neighbours such as Bhutan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, Modi has shown “great enthusiasm” in diplomacy, says the US diplomat. “This is contrary to his silence when it comes to domestic issues,” he says. “Changing Kashmir’s political discourse is extremely crucial to his idea of resolving disputes between India and Pakistan. He is determined to do that,” observes this senior American official.

At UFA, after the two prime ministers met in Room No 4 at the Congress Hall, the venue of the SCO summit, it was Modi who suggested that the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan issue a joint statement to set peace talks rolling after a long gap. Sharif immediately agreed, and the statement was jointly drafted within 30 minutes by Indian Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar and Pakistan’s Aizaz Ahsan Chaudhary. Says a senior MEA official: “Sharif is not as powerful as he used to be in the 1990s, when he had negotiated with the then Indian Prime Minister AB Vajpayee. He had then fought what at the time seemed a successful battle against Pakistan army’s dominance in all spheres of life in that country. He had forced his chief of army staff Jehangir Karamat to resign over some differences of opinion. Now things are different, but for Modi, it seems to me that what’s more important is to resume the dialogue while he goes ahead with his mega plan to overhaul political equations in Kashmir. Let’s not see everything from a diplomacy viewpoint alone.” The PDP-BJP government in J&K has already announced various welfare measures to address the needs of weaker sections of society there. Besides pro-women and pro-girl child schemes, the state government also decided in the state budget to waive half the Kisan Credit Card (KCC) loans of farmers who have an outstanding balance of less than Rs 1 lakh. The budget also announced zero-balance saving accounts for 50,000 widows. To tackle the state’s low sex ratio, the state government announced that it will offer Rs 1,000 per month to every girl for 14 years from birth. At 21 years, she will receive close to Rs 6.5 lakh.

“Let’s not forget that during the Ufa parleys, the Indian side made it very clear that it expects Pakistan to do more in order to normalise talks,” says the first government official, referring to New Delhi’s displeasure over the release in April this year of Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, the alleged mastermind of the 26/11 attacks. He had been lodged in Pakistan’s Adiala Jail for nearly six years. He was released from jail on 10 April after securing bail.

Meanwhile, an MEA official has dismissed suggestions that the statements of Sharif’s adviser on National Security and Foreign Affairs was a sign of Islamabad backtracking on its commitment to speeding up the 26/11 attack trial. “What Sartaj Aziz [Sharif’s adviser] said was that Islamabad needed more information to take the Mumbai terror attacks trial forward. Which is fine by us. The joint statement clearly says that we will provide more information if required,” he says. One clause of the joint statement said: both sides agreed to discuss ways and means to expedite the Mumbai case trial, including additional information like providing voice samples. “Therefore the agreement on accelerating the 26/11 trial in Pakistan against Lakhvi and others is a key takeaway of the talks between the prime ministers of the two countries,” the official says, clear that the plans afoot in Kashmir will change the rules of the game between the two neighbours that have fought wars in 1948, 1965 and 1971. Referring to the poll alliance between the BJP and PDP in J&K, Sumantra Bose, professor of International and Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics, had noted that it offers the tantalising possibility of a modus Vivendi between Indian nationalism and Kashmiri regionalism. “It should not be wasted,” said Bose, whose most recent work was Transforming India: Challenges to the World’s Largest Democracy.

“That is an interesting observation. Perhaps that is the way ahead for resolving the Kashmir dispute,” admits a senior government official based in Srinagar. “It is that aggressive push in Kashmir that separatists find worrying for obvious reasons. Academics like Jalal may not have noticed this political game fully well,” he says. He adds that “quite contrary to the late 1990s when Prime Minister Vajpayee resorted largely to a diplomatic blitz, this time Modi, with the help of his officials, including NSA Ajit Doval and other experts on Pakistan within the government fold, are handling the issue both politically and diplomatically”.

“In fact, Modi now has the liberty of standing on the shoulders of Vajpayee, who had stood on the shoulders of [the late Congress Prime Minister PV Narasinha] Rao,” he offers. According to him, while Rao made much headway in the ties between two countries, it was Vajpayee who corrected the ‘blunders’ of IK Gujral “whose friendly neighbourliness” doctrine was “an utter flop” and a capitulation of “our positions”. He adds that Gujral had a highly romantic way of looking at Indo-Pak relations. Vajpayee, on the other hand, was pragmatic though the intelligence agencies failed him. “When he was in Lahore in February 1999 after flagging off the bus from Delhi to Lahore, some Pakistan-trained militants and army men had crossed on to the Indian side of the LoC,” he says. The plan by Pakistan, later revealed as masterminded by General Pervez Musharraf, was to de-link Kashmir from Ladakh and force Indian forces to withdraw from the Siachen Glacier. While Sharif told Vajpayee that he didn’t know about the Kargil attack plan, Musharraf, then Sharif’s general, claimed that the Pakistani prime minister had been briefed about it in advance.

“What was remarkable about Vajpayee was that he had the perseverance to wait and work towards a solution to Indo-Pak hostilities in the aftermath of the nuclear tests by both countries in 1998. He wanted to defuse the crisis from escalating and worked towards it with all sincerity,” concedes a senior Congress leader. In mid-1998, Vajpayee and Sharif met on the sidelines of a SAARC summit in Colombo, but a breakthrough couldn’t be achieved because the Indian side didn’t accept Pakistan’s demand for placing Kashmir on top of the agenda of bilateral talks. They met again in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meet in September, where they made some progress. Vajpayee met Sharif months later in Lahore along with a few members of his foster family. Sharif, he of the warm disposition, immediately asked his family, who was away from Lahore, to join them. At that meeting, Sharif told Vajpayee that a big chunk of sugar that is consumed in India came from Pakistan, setting the tone for talks to boost trade. Vajpayee replied wittily, “Your sugar is very very sweet.” No wonder that when Sharif came to attend Modi’s swearing- in, the Pakistan prime minister vowed to “pick up the threads” with Modi from where he and Vajpayee left off in 1999. The two countries had been mutually hostile after the Kargil attack and later the Parliament attack of 13 December 2001.

Prior to that, efforts by the two countries to resolve outstanding issues had failed at the Agra summit of mid- July. No treaty could be signed at that meet because of various factors, including the perception that it was the then President and army general Pervez Musharraf who derailed the Vajpayee-Sharif peace talks.

Many years later, India and Pakistan almost came close to a historic moment at Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt on 16 July 2009, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Yousuf Raza Gilani met to sign a joint declaration. But Singh and team made the diplomatic faux pas of including a mention of Balochistan in the statement where Islamabad said it faces trouble. Besides, New Delhi also agreed to delink Pakistan’s response on the Mumbai attack trial from the composite dialogue process. India’s External Affairs Minister then, SM Krishna, tried to justify Singh’s proposal saying that India wanted to give the Pakistan government a “chance to prove or disprove” that it is in control of the government machinery.

Professor Ian Talbot, renowned expert on India- Pakistan relations and author of several books on the two countries, says Modi has great ambitions as India’s Prime Minister. Says he: “Modi may well see the need for improved relations with Pakistan as necessary not only for his place in history and the burnishing of his statesmanship, but in order for India to play a wider regional role not only through SAARC, but in newer institutions such as the [SCO].” The University of Southampton professor adds that there are sound geo-political reasons for India to reach out to Pakistan at this moment, although this is likely to take a cautious and pragmatic form, rather than breakthroughs on longstanding issues. He is of the view that modest achievements are better than none at all, given the dangers of escalating tensions. “Given that the dialogue, if it gets off the ground, will be about such things as regulating the ceasefire along the LoC, rather than resolving one way or the other the Kashmir issue, back-channel diplomacy will not be that dissimilar to what will be publicly expressed. If the dialogue moved further forward as in the Musharraf era, then back- channel talks would discuss a range of ‘solutions’ to the Kashmir issue, which would be unpalatable certainly to Pakistan public opinion if conducted in the full glare of publicity. It is unlikely at present that this stage will be reached, with talks focusing on the regulation of border conflicts so that there is no repetition of the recent loss of civilian lives as a result of shelling,” he maintains.

Adds an MEA official: “Any kind of statement running down the joint statement from Pakistan has to be viewed in that context. That politicians in Pakistan have to appear anti-India to stay popular is no secret. Giving peace a chance is not an easy proposition in that country, where the influence of non-state actors is increasing rapidly over time. They have to tread cautiously. Indian rulers are very much aware of this, and will not, therefore, take any contradictory statements seriously. Besides, as of now, the effort is to stop the breaking out of further hostilities. More importantly, I believe our government is now more focused on a major political overhaul of sorts in Kashmir. One will have to wait and see the outcome. But I am sure the efforts are phenomenal.”

The Modi Government is expected to spend close to Rs 1 lakh crore in a raft of development programmes in the trouble-torn state. “Nobody is more afraid of losing their clout than the separatists,” says a PDP leader. “The coalition in the state is a great experiment in democracy. The centre is determined to put developmental activities in the state on the fast-track mode.”

Talbot says that the dialogue process with Pakistan and India may not go forward without what he calls the “tacit acquiescence” of the Pakistani army. “The default position of the Pakistan army is to mistrust all politicians, although some are more disliked than others,” he elaborates, “Nawaz Sharif has a chequered background, first as a protégé of Zia [ul Haq] and then as a rival to military influence, leading to the 1999 coup. Over the last 18 months, he has been boxed in by the army, reducing any threat to his rolling back its influence. His first attempt to improve relations with India during Manmohan Singh’s premiership stalled in part because of [Pakistani] military opposition. He is in a weaker position now to attempt to carve out a policy independent of the establishment’s wishes.”

The professor, however, doesn’t buy the argument put forth by a section of Asia watchers that the Pakistani army would be keen on normalising ties with India in the face of threats from terror outfits such as the Islamic State (IS) on its western and northern borders. “The Pakistan military has a number of recent successes against militants in North Waziristan and Khyber. It acknowledges an IS presence, but is also aware that the commanders are breakaway factions from the [Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan] and as such are a known quantity rather than a fresh threat. The displacement of militants from [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] by the Pakistani army into Afghanistan has created the circumstances for fighting between Afghan Taliban and IS in parts of Kunar province. This reveals the complex situation and the difficulties IS would have to overcome to establish a presence.” He believes that the Pakistani army and ISI see IS as following in the tradition of the ‘bad Taliban’ who are directing actions against the Pakistan state. “The security establishment has secured public support for action against the ‘bad Taliban’ in terms of Pakistani patriotism rather than playing an Islamic card,” he says.

Talbot says that New Delhi has a clear understanding that it would be against India’s national interest to see Pakistan become a failed state, as the consequences of this could spill over its borders. “India requires a peaceful neighbourhood to pursue its own development path. Pakistan’s stability depends not just on curbing extremism, but achieving inclusive economic growth. This will be more difficult [so long as] the army swallows up resources. Good relations between India and Pakistan provide an opportunity for a ‘peace dividend’ and a rebalancing of civil-military relations,” he points out.

Scholars and historians also discount the possibility— a theory proposed by some geopolitical experts in Delhi— that China would be keen to see India and Pakistan shed their hostilities as the communist country itself is worried about an Islamist threat. Says Dr Faisal Devji, reader in Indian History, St Antony’s College, University of Oxford: “China is certainly concerned by the threat posed by militant Islam, though at the moment it is not as important as the more conventional threat of sub-nationalism among non-Han populations (Uighurs in this case). This more conventional threat is no different from that which India has repeatedly faced in places like Assam, Punjab or Kashmir before the rise of a more ‘Islamic’ opposition in the 1990s. In both countries, such threats have often been exacerbated by the state itself, which at least in part laid the groundwork for the arrival of newly global forms of religious militancy.”

Yet, Devji adds, it is not clear why stronger links with India might help China deal with such a threat. “On the contrary, it is by working more closely with her close ally Pakistan that China is able to moderate and control the risk of militancy on her own soil,” he says, “Indeed, links with India are more likely to increase the threat of militancy, which in any case is not so important as to determine China’s foreign policy, and certainly not its relations with India. Instead, the reasons for any new links between the two countries should be sought in the larger ambitions of both in expanding their influence and leadership roles in Asia.”

American historian and China expert Edward Luttwak says that China’s No 1 goal is to keep Pakistan as its ally. “China has no other ally on this planet,” he says, “So it does not matter that the woman is very poor and has an infectious disease (Jihadism) because she is the only woman in the world for China. To keep Pakistan as an ally, Pakistan must be needy and that is best assured by on-going conflict with India. But not too much, no open war. Therefore, China will not encourage either détente or escalation.”

With or without Chinese help, Pakistan has been historically preoccupied with tactics without much concern for strategy, says an MEA official, suggesting that the country’s rulers cannot be easily trusted with peace talks. “Yes, the feeling is mutual,” he agrees.

At a stock-taking meeting on Pakistan on Thursday, India decided to deal sternly with ceasefire violations, putting in place a flexible mechanism to simultaneously pursue peace talks with the hostile neighbour. “There should be no doubt that any unprovoked firing will be met with force,” Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar has said. But with the Indian Government engaged in a huge, long- term political experiment in Kashmir, it is clear that playing by old rules won’t be enough.

Modi, the hyperactive internationalist, wants to build on the ruins of the past diplomatic follies a new subcontinental partnership in peace. It may look like high-risk adventurism to sceptics, but history belongs to those who dare. Modi has the mandate and the freedom to do so, but will Nawaz Sharif, whose powers are controlled by the military establishment whose anti-Indianism is as old as the distrust between the two neighbours, join him in seizing history?