Prime Minister Narendra Modi was quite committed to his peace initiatives with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. He had carefully and personally choreographed the same over 30 months and had good reasons to believe he was making contact. So what snapped? How and why did the relationship of trust between the two prime ministers deteriorate to an extent that exactly five months after allowing a Joint Investigation Team from Pakistan unprecedented access to an Indian Airforce base (27 March), the Indian Army launched covert surgical strikes across the Line of Control on 29 September?
Was it a steady ebbing of the bonhomie or did the trust break suddenly? Was the deadly attack on the Uri Army Base the breaking point or was that just the straw that broke the camel’s back?
Since the surgical strikes came immediately after the Uri attack, it might seem like Uri was the deal-breaker. But top government sources told Firstpost that something happened in August that broke the trust Modi had placed in Sharif. But before we discuss what exactly was that breaking point, it is necessary to roll back to early January to provide a bit of context.
The first serious setback to Modi’s peace initiatives came on 2 January when armed terrorists from Pakistan launched a deadly attack on the Pathankot Airbase. Although it caused major embarrassment for Modi — as much from NDA partners as from the Opposition — the government refrained from any knee-jerk reaction, choosing instead to give the benefit of the doubt to the Pakistani political establishment’s sincerity.
This mood continued well into April, too. By then, Pakistan’s five-member Joint Investigation Team, including one senior officer of the notorious Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), had been given access to the attack site at the airbase. This entailed extreme political risks for the NDA government in general and Modi in particular. No sooner than the Pakistani team went back after being presented with — as this Indian Express article points out — hard evidence of the involvement of Pakistani agencies and terrorist organisations based there, Pakistan reneged on its promise for a reciprocal visit of Indian investigators.
This was decidedly embarrassing for the Modi government. But it still preferred to stay invested in the peace initiative rather than turn up the volume about betrayal etc. Tenuous though it was this peace would have held but for the encounter death of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani on 8 July and the subsequent developments in Kashmir.
Within a week of Wani’s death, Pakistan not just upped the ante against India but did something that was, in the government’s mind, a deal-breaker. Apart from fuelling the anger in the Valley, Sharif called a special cabinet meeting to empathise with Wani. This was followed up on 1 August with a joint session of the Pakistani Parliament, which passed a resolution eulogising Wani.
In December 2014 when the Tehreek-e-Taliban terrorists massacred more than 130 children in an Army school, schools across India — at the urging of the prime minister — observed a minute’s silence in honour of the slain innocents. And the Indian Parliament too observed silence before passing a resolution condemning the massacre and commiserating with the Parliament, government and the people of Pakistan. In return, we had the Pakistan Cabinet and its Parliament, led by its Prime Minister, eulogising a known terrorist of a known global terror organisation.
“That hit the government like a bolt of lightning,” revealed a top government source. Sharif, it seemed, had surrendered meekly to the deep state (the Pakistani Army) and the most critical factor for the thaw in relations — the trust and bonhomie between the two prime ministers — was completely broken. Modi realised his peace moves had hit a dead end. That is when he started hardening his stand, around two months before the Uri attack.
So did Modi make a mistake in reposing his trust in Sharif? Was Sharif always going to play the army game ultimately? Sources close to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) maintain that Sharif appeared to be sincerely in favour of peace. Through back-channel diplomacy and in direct talks with Modi, Sharif had often remarked, “Chaliye mil kar kuchch karte hain (let us do something together)”.
The attack on Pathankot was the Pakistani deep state’s response to the trust developing between the two governments
That and the fact that he had shown sincerity on certain occasions, built a degree of trust. For instance, Sharif called up Modi to convey his deep regrets and sympathies after the fidayeen (suicide) attack on Pathankot airbase on 2 January. His voice clearly showed his sense of unease and anguish over the attack. “I will handle them,” was his assurance to Modi. Sure enough, an FIR was filed in Pakistan on the Pathankot attack.
It was taken a gesture of good intent taken at great political risk. The trust was cemented. That is why the Ministry of External Affairs, Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Home Affairs were quite restrained in their reactions to Pathankot and the role of Pakistan. Sources in the MEA admitted that there was a clear message to give “manoeuvring space” to Pakistan and not drive the Sharif government into a corner. Much against the wishes of the Indian intelligence agencies, a team of Pakistani investigators was allowed to inspect the scene of crime.
Highly-placed sources in the government admit that on 10 July, 2015 when Modi and Sharif met on sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit in Ufa (Russia) for an hour, the confidence both the leaders exuded was indicative of growing bonhomie and trust between them. Sharif gave the impression of a leader who is conscious of dangers of nursing sanctuaries of terrorism in his backyard. Every time he parroted the line “let us do something”. In the same vein, both the leaders talked about the Mumbai attack and resolved to bring perpetrators of the crime to book.
It was in this context that Modi while returning home from Afghanistan had decided to touch down in Lahore to wish Sharif on his birthday and attend his grand daughter’s wedding at the Raiwind palace on December 25 last year. It was at the closed confines of the Raiwind Palace in company of the Sharif brothers that Modi spoke about “Jung bahut karli, jung karke kya paya, na jameen mili na jannat paaya (What has war yielded? Neither land nor haven)".
The attack on Pathankot was the Pakistani deep state’s response to the trust developing between the two governments. Aware of this, the Modi government gave enough wiggle room for Sharif, But the moment Sharif himself led the eulogy of a terrorist in his country’s Parliament, Modi saw red. Then came his speech at the UN General Assembly which showed that he was either reading somebody else’s speech or that he had put up a façade for Modi.
That set the stage for the new terms of engagement with Pakistan as revealed in the wee hours of 29 September.