By Seema Guha
Aware of public anger after the terror attack in Pathankot, India has deferred Friday's foreign secretary level talks with Pakistan but was clear that it "would take place in the very near future."
The idea is to cool temperatures keeping in mind the hard line supporters of the ruling BJP and its extended family. It is not a mere coincidence that the Pakistan International Airlines office in Barakhambha in the heart of Delhi was on Thursday vandalised by a right wing group.
After the initial flip-flop over Pakistan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems to have settled in favour of playing the peace card. The fact that discussions with Pakistan have not been called-off in a typical knee-jerk reaction, is a positive sign. But it is important for Modi and his policy advisers to think through the process and insulate it from entrenched interests who will try to disrupt any move towards normal ties.
Foreign office spokesperson Vikas Swarup was at pains to clarify that the decision to postpone the talks was arrived at mutually when both foreign secretaries spoke over the phone on Thursday morning.
India also welcomed Pakistan’s "actions" with Swarup dubbing them as "initial positive steps."
"We welcome the statement issued by the government of Pakistan yesterday (Wednesday) on the investigations into the Pathankot attack. The statement conveys that considerable progress has been made in investigation being carried out… We note the apprehension of Jaish-e-Mohammed members. The action taken against JeM is an important and positive first step," Swarup said in his opening statement during Thursday's weekly briefing.
Reports from Pakistan indicate some members of JeM, the terror group responsible for the attack on the Pathankot air base, have been arrested. Their office forcibly sealed.
More importantly, India is ready to welcome a special investigating team (SIT) from Pakistan to follow up on the leads given by New Delhi.
"We look forward to SIT visit and our investigating agencies will extend all necessary co-operation to bring the perpetrators of the Pathankot attack to justice," he said.
He also added that India has "no information" on the arrest of Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Maulana Masood Azhar.
This is a break from the past, when officials were wary of Pakistani counterparts' visit to investigate any terror attack. The traditional and rather irrational view was that Pakistan would use the knowledge for future attacks.
It was plain from Swarup’s briefing on Thursday that the Centre hopes to shore up Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s position and continue the conversation with Pakistan.
The idea is not to let the momentum from Modi’s Lahore stopover (25 December) go waste.
India’s mature response to the Pathankot attack is an indication that the prime minister is keen to keep alive his Lahore initiative by keeping the conversation going.
Interestingly, India has stopped short of demanding that Masood Azhar be arrested, allowing Islamabad a long rope and giving it time to consider.
National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and his Pakistan counterpart, retired general Nasser Khan Janjua, have been speaking to each other on the phone several times since the Pathankot attack.
Many in India see the NSA, a recently retired general said to be close to chief Raheel Sharif, as a direct line to the Pakistan army. However the road to peace for India and Pakistan is tied in a complex relationship with decades of historical baggage.
Yet frequent meetings between political leadership and officials of both countries without hoping for quick-fix solutions is the way ahead.
Modi, a strong leader, must carry his hard line supporters with him. That will not be an easy task. His recent overtures, for instance, came in for criticism.
"I am astonished at the state of affairs. After Pathankot, the government seemed desperate to continue the talks, I feel they should not have talked at all. After all it was the BJP which always said that terror and talks cannot go hand-in-hand. What happened?
"Gurdaspur and then Pathankot and we still want to talk? I don’t understand. At one point foreign secretary talks were called off because Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit met with some Hurriyat leaders. And now after Pathankot, which was a serious attempt at destroying India’s core interests, we still want to go ahead with negotiations?", said Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management.
He said a myth had been perpetuated that during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s term in office, India and Pakistan had almost come to an agreement.
"Now Narendra Modi is following that line and perhaps eyeing a Nobel peace prize?," he asked sarcastically.
Former foreign secretary Salman Haider, who drew up the contours of composite dialogue, welcomed Modi’s desire to continue the engagement with Pakistan.
"I think the PM has shown contradictory impulses. Somewhere he has realised now that hostile relations with Pakistan somehow diminishes his own status… Nawaz Sharif has also been as eager to continue the talks and is matching Modi step for step. Let’s support their effort."