Optics and gestures matter in diplomacy. They may not deliver something substantive in the short run, but they go a long way in terms of messaging and setting a roadmap. That Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Maulana Masood Azhar has been taken into preventive custody, the offices of his outfit sealed and that there’s a crackdown on his followers by the Pakistan government’s may not eventually yield much in addressing the core matters between India and Pakistan, but the signal from these actions and the series of responses post the Pathankot terror attack would definitely decide the shape of the bilateral relations with Pakistan in the future.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif deserve a huge round of applause for this. Both have risked the anger of the vocal domestic hate constituencies in respective countries and put their personal popularity at stake to get things moving in a sensible direction.
Modi's Pakistan policy — one must mention here that it has gone through many difficult-to-explain flip-flops and about-turns in a brief period - might be criticized for being no different from the approach of earlier governments, but as someone best placed to address the vexatious Pakistan problem, his moves carry much more heft and weight of authority than any other prime minister earlier. Of course, the Indian side won’t be inclined to give much credit to Sharif for the developments, but if it’s really due to someone it has to be him. Given the mess that Pakistan is the stakes and risks involved are much higher for him than Modi.
From the Indian perspective, Modi has taken total control over the bilateral narrative. If his surprise Lahore trip and the visit to the Sharif household were attributed to his penchant for theatrics, the subsequent sober and subdued reaction from the usually irrepressible BJP leaders till now through the Pathankot attack suggests it was anything but so. The party spokespersons are off Pakistan bashing on television and the normally rabid fringe of the Sangh is silent. Clearly, Modi, the Prime Minister, has asserted himself by extricating intricate matters of diplomacy from rabble-rousers, who incidentally happen to be his biggest supporters. His Lahore trip was intended to be a blunt message to them.
Modi, a pragmatic leader as he is — this cannot be said of his party or the wider Sangh ecosystem he belongs to though — must be aware of the unique position he occupies in the current times. He enjoys a majority in Parliament and he still has popular trust behind him. His mistakes would be more readily forgiven than, say, that of a Manmohan Singh. And more significantly, he represents what is now known as the Indian Right, a big stakeholder by default in the Pakistan and Jammu and Kashmir policies. If anyone can bring a change to the geopolitical equations of the sub-continent it has to be him. He has decided to take the lead. And he knows the risks for him are manageable.
Things are, however, much more critical from Sharif’s perspective. Anyone worth his education in India knows Pakistan is a deeply flawed nation with debilitating genetic defects. There are just too many nations within the nation and there’s no strong binding principle holding it together or justifying its existence as a modern nation-state, barring perhaps the anti-India sentiment. Religion and democracy make a lethal self-destructive concoction here. The democratically elected civilian establishment, if the by now accepted narrative is to go by, has no real control in many critical areas. The military establishment calls the shots in internal security and foreign matters. It backs, through its agencies, non-state actors involved in terrorism, particularly in India. It also has a huge financial stake in keeping the anti-India mood alive and kicking.
To go against it requires massive resolve and personal will strength. In a country where political leaders could easily be eliminated for displeasing one group or the other, Sharif has shown exemplary courage in trying to bridge fences with India. In the entire peace initiative with India, he perhaps has been the only constant for many years. He was a major player during prime minister Vajpayee’s peace moves with Pakistan, and he is still at it with Modi. And mind you, Modi is unlike Vajpayee when it comes to public perception in Pakistan. He carries this image – unfortunately though - of a Hindutva hardliner with little love for Muslims. Imagine the flak Sharif would be receiving at home for getting close to him. It’s the same way Manmohan Singh government was being pilloried for making friendly gestures towards Pakistani leaders.
India would be graceful if it acknowledged Sharif’s role in the peace process. His contribution to the bilateral ties has been immense, perhaps more than that of Modi.