Was Ashraf’s private visit a success or a disaster for India?

By Rajeev Sharma

Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf has come and gone after his day-long private visit to Jaipur and Ajmer on Saturday. A striking aspect is that the event passed off without Ashraf scoring any brownie point against the Indians.

Pakistani leaders have often proven to be unguided missiles and are known to have bamboozled the Indian leadership with their balderdash during their India visits which are invariably high-octane irrespective of the fact whether such visits are official or private.

Ashraf’s private visit passed off without the usual Pakistani one-up-manship. This was despite the fact that External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid provided him a platform and thus an opportunity by hosting a private lunch in his honour at Jaipur’s luxury heritage hotel Rambagh Palace. Whether Khurshid did the right thing or not in showing diplomatic courtesies to Islamabad is a debatable point, but the fact remains that Ashraf was sent off home without any diplomatic attrition to India.

Pakistan Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf (L) shakes hands with Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid at a hotel in Jaipur on 9 March 2013.  AFP

Pakistan Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf (L) shakes hands with Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid at a hotel in Jaipur on 9 March 2013. AFP

Despite the debatable Khurshid gesture to Ashraf, his private visit went off without any diplomatic hiccup for India. Perhaps Khurshid and his government proved to be smarter than the Pakistanis, for once.

The Manmohan Singh government couldn’t have been unaware of the repercussions of the implications of rolling out a red carpet to the Pakistani PM close on the heels of Pakistan Army’s outrage on the Line of Control in January 2013. And yet it went ahead with this controversial diplomatic gamble. The question is, well, it is not a question but a balance sheet: what it gained and what it lost.

India stands to gain nothing from courting Pakistan at this point of time when Pakistan is on the cusp of general elections and the projections are that the ruling Pakistan People’s Party is on its way out. India itself is scheduled to go in for general elections in a year from now, if not pushed earlier.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has articulated his Pakistan policy that it cannot be business as usual with Pakistan till the neighbour stops exporting terrorism into India. In many ways it is an admission from the Indian chief executive—who has invested huge personal and political goodwill in mending relations with Pakistan—that he has not succeeded in his Mission Pakistan.

This will inevitably be the biggest personal thumb-down for Manmohan Singh in his career as India’s one of the longest-serving prime ministers.

On the flip side, the Manmohan Singh government has demonstrated to Pakistan, and more importantly to the United States-led international community, that it is a civilized nation that believes in fostering better relations with its neighbours, including a recalcitrant neighbour like Pakistan whose army continues to get away with crimes of beheading Indian army soldiers.

In that sense, Khurshid would walk away with the trophy of having dealt with a tough neighbour admirably well in surcharged times such as these when even a dog from Pakistan is not welcome to the Indian public. Khurshid had an enviable task cut out before him. He was to take only brickbats and no bouquets from the Indian public and the political establishment for showing diplomatic niceties to the prime minister of a nation that had just outraged the Indian national pride.

Khurshid may not have played to the gallery of Indian masses by hosting lunch for the Pakistani prime minister on a private visit but he has definitely succeeded in telling the world that India still holds a thinking head over its shoulders. The message to the world from the controversial Khurshid act of extending diplomatic courtesies to the Pakistani prime minister is that India has not lost its diplomatic marbles to a nation that sends fifty dirty, starved dogs to it in response to a stray dog that was accidentally sent across to Pakistan via Samjhauta Express.

Khurshid did well in limiting himself to just breaking bread with the Pakistani PM. He did not hold any substantive talks with Ashraf. He made sure that he went to Jaipur without any back-up from top diplomats, thus signaling that he was in no mood for engaging Ashraf in a serious discussion.

Diplomacy, in many ways, resembles a game of billiards. You hit the blue ball to net the green ball instead! From this point of view, Khurshid played a game of diplomatic billiards with Pakistan and played it rather well.

However, there is a caveat. While it is true that not engaging the enemy is not good diplomacy, rolling out red carpet for the enemy is not good politics. Predictably, the opposition parties like the BJP have hauled the UPA government over coals for its alleged sin of lunching with the enemy.

Khurshid was put this question in naked terms. And he threw the ball back in the BJP court. Asked to comment on the BJP questioning him for hosting Ashraf over lunch, albeit private, he shot back saying: “They just have to look at their history and they will know why.”

It will be a long while before the ‘should Khurshid have hosted Ashrad over lunch’ debate dies down. Two questions will be relevant for determining the right or wrong in the rationale behind Khurshid’s lunch diplomacy:

(i) Did the UPA government sacrifice the national pride and honour in doing so?
(ii) Could the BJP have behaved differently had it been in power?

Ashraf’s private visit to India and the Indian response thereof may not be a game-changer for the fate of ruling parties of India and Pakistan in an election year but it will definitely set a template for India-Pakistan relations. Here is a bigger power which does not give ‘an eye for eye and a tooth for a tooth’ kind of response to a smaller but provocative neighbour but believes in staying engaged with a neighbour, however provocative it might be.

This is the message that Khurshid’s munificent act seems to convey to the international community. It is in the womb of time to tell whether this diplomatic symbolism clicks or boomerangs for (i) the Congress party and (ii) India.

The writer is a FirstPost columnist who can be reached at bhootnath004@yahoo.com.