By Seema Guha
It is well known that though Prime Minister Narendra Modi is keen to continue his engagement with Pakistan and take forward the gains of his Christmas Day visit to Lahore, the attack on Pathankot air base had led to a pause. However, India has been restrained in its reaction to the terror attack, simply announcing that foreign secretary-level talks would be resumed and that the top diplomats were in touch.
Beyond that, there was no official comment. It was apparent that domestic public opinion was weighing in on the government. No political leader, after all, can go ahead with talks as if nothing had happened.
On Wednesday, foreign secretary S Jaishankar, delivering the key note address at the Raisina Dialogue, said in response to a question about Pakistan, "The Pakistan foreign secretary and I had agreed to meet. Then Pathankot happened. The two national security advisers and foreign secretaries are in touch. Parallel processes are happening. If there is a choice between action on terrorist attacks and diplomatic dialogue, the answer is obvious."
The bottom line is that Islamabad has to do more on terror before the dialogue can resume. And it might seem obvious, but this is the first time that it has been publicly articulated by a foreign secretary.
Ironically, Sartaj Aziz, Nawaz Sharif's foreign policy adviser, was reported by the Pakistan press as saying that talks between the two neighbours would resume after a team from his country visits Pathankot. There is a buzz in Delhi that when Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif travel to Washington for the Nuclear Summit hosted by US President Barak Obama at the end of March, the two leaders will continue their conversation. But there is still no official confirmation of any meeting.
The Pakistan issue was an aside at the keynote address that Jaishankar delivered at the Raisina Dialogue, which was inaugurated on Tuesday by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. The dialogue, the first of its kind held on this scale by the Observer Research Foundation and the MEA, is an attempt to make this event an annual show along the lines of the Shangrila Dialogue in Singapore, which is a major event in the diplomatic calendar. Former presidents of Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Seychelles, Chandrika Kuratunga, Hamid Karzai and James Mancham respectively, US Pacific Command admiral Harry B Harris Jr, Bangladesh foreign minister Abdul Hassan Mahmood Ali and 100 more speakers from 35 nations were present.
Jaishankar's talk was on Asian connectivity, which is the broad central theme of the dialogue. Connectivity — both digital and through rail, road and sea — has been a central theme of the Modi government. The foreign secretary admitted that India is "under-connected". "Like most things, connectivity begins at home," Jaishankar admitted, but also said that the Modi government is seriously hoping to remedy the situation.
"We are investing substantially in the development of road connectivity infrastructure with an emphasis on the Northeast and strategic border areas. The railway policy unveiled by the government last week outlines an ambitious programme involving transformation. Our maritime agenda envisages port development to harness the private sector's capabilities. It is also important that the nodes of outward connectivity are linked better with the hinterland. The integrated development of ports and the hinterland, which is the main objective of our SAGARMALA project, would surely have profound consequences over time," he added.
He spoke at length about India's attempts to connect with its eastern neighbours – Bangladesh and Myanmar. Many such projects had been initiated during the UPA regime, but have been accelerated by the present government, he said.
Jaishankar said that progress was least to the North West of India, perhaps referring to Pakistan, though he did not name the country. "The absence of transit rights there is an impediment to trade, energy flows and economic integration," Jaishankar said.
At the inauguration on Tuesday evening, former Afghan president Hamid Karzai had also brought up Pakistan's refusal to grant transit rights to India as a major hindrance to trade.
Especially with Iran now coming out of the sanctions regime, the situation could ease. India had long been associated with the Chahbahar project in Iran. This was done to bypass Pakistan and build a road between the Iranian port city and Afghanistan. This would not only open Afghanistan's markets to Indian goods, but also help in exploring the central Asian markets. "We are working to invest in the Chahbahar port, join the Ashgabat Agreement and participate in the International North South Transport Corridor. Combined with other ambitious bilateral initiatives, they could be game changers in Central Asia — a part of the world that historically and culturally has strong affinity with India," the foreign secretary said.
China's former foreign minister Li Zhaoxing said that the two great Asian powers — India and China — have a responsibility to drive economic growth and regional connectivity. He said that China was already concentrating on improving roadways and infrastructure in Asia. He spoke of the Silk Road Fund and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which would go a long way in bringing connectivity to the region. While India is part of the AIIB, it has reservations about President Xi Jinping's ambitious one belt one road initiative, which has been welcomed by most Asian nations. Li added that improved India-China
strategic cooperation would help the process of integration and connectivity in the region. India has so far been less than enthusiastic about China's beltway plans, but perhaps it would be more pragmatic to embrace it, because whether India likes it or not Asian nations will have also welcomed the move of connectivity with Chinese funds.