Narendra Modi's conundrum on Pakistan policy: Hasty response to peace overtures may upset voters, but long-term solution lies in early intervention

Elections 2019 are finally over, barring the shouting. So we may reasonably expect a second inauguration of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister of India, although second term prime ministers do not necessarily desire a high profile inauguration. These are ceremonial events but also great occasions to make political statements; no words are required for that, gestures are sufficient. At the end of a highly acrimonious national election, can it be expected that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his second stint, will extend a gesture of peace to Pakistan. The expectation emerges because it happened with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 2014 and Modi received a round of praise for the gesture; although Sharif did later express his unhappiness at the protocol snafus. Prime Minister Modi is known for his out of the box style of functioning with gestures which have taken even his advisers by surprise. If nothing materializes we would have at least discussed Indo-Pakistan relations in the context of the hypothesis of a potential gesture.

 Narendra Modis conundrum on Pakistan policy: Hasty response to peace overtures may upset voters, but long-term solution lies in early intervention

Representational image. Reuters

Hypothesizing, what would be the benefits of any major gesture of peace at this juncture? Firstly, it is being assessed that provided there are no further spectacular negative events (of the Uri or Pulwama variety) in the next six months to a year, Kashmir remains relatively quiet and the LoC exchanges are at much reduced levels, there will be international pressure on India to commence some form of dialogue with Pakistan to reduce the chances of future conflict. The supporters of this line will point to Imran Khan’s frequent gestures, of extending a hand to India; also his statement that only under the NDA combine could a lasting solution to Jammu and Kashmir be found.

In addition, there are the recent measures within Pakistan to curb activities of the India focused terror groups in Pakistan, the already stabilizing situation in Jammu and Kashmir in a season in which terrorist infiltration seems to have been placed on the back burner, and the necessity to quickly move away from the very acrimonious exchanges over the last three months. Are these sufficient indicators of changing times in the absence of no verbal commitment on withholding further sponsorship of terrorism in India? Supporters will further substantiate this by stating that an early recovery of a peace process will give maximum impetus and perhaps strengthen Imran Khan’s hands in curbing the activities of the terror groups that Pakistan's deep state has nurtured over the years. It will help improve the geopolitical environment of the subcontinent and not divert attention from the efforts to find peace in Afghanistan. These arguments also point to the virtual impossibility of a statement from Pakistan that it will not indulge in sponsored proxy war against India; the essence will be in the demonstration of absence of violence.

The above sounds far too simplistic in the light of Pakistan’s most awkward gesture today, of once again signaling willingness to engage in talks and simultaneously conducting a training test of it 1,500 kilometre range SSBM Shaheen II to message its strategic capability and reach. All this even as counting of votes was underway. The NDA's political strength and fortunes improved substantially because of the anti-Pakistan rhetoric and a campaign focused on national security. To respond positively or even make an independent gesture of peace at this early stage to Pakistan could make the NDA look insincere to its own voters and draw flak of the Opposition too. That is a point which the government will need to keep in mind. In the light of Pakistan's awkward gesture which appears driven with a military mindset obviously gestures of peace from India will be misconstrued.

There are reports of some emerging friction between Imran Khan and General Bajwa. In recent weeks many advisers and ministers have been replaced by those from the Musharraf times, on a belief that Pakistan was never treated so severely by the international community as it is being treated under Imran Khan and therefore needs some experienced hands to handle the current status.

The Pakistan prime minister’s attendance of the Indian prime minister’s inauguration ceremony in 2014 required the express endorsement of the Pakistan Army; it is one of the strange countries where such a requirement exists. The last time in 2014 when Sharif was invited it took the Pakistan Army by surprise and it did not know how exactly to respond. A refusal or presence of a lower functionary such as the Foreign Minister would have appeared boorish and inappropriate. The environment in Kashmir was just heating up and the LoC was live. Sharif then considered his personal appearance at the inauguration as a transformational gesture which would go beyond the ordinary and help in creating an environment of peace, notwithstanding the Pakistan Army’s ignoble ideas. He thus travelled to India with reluctant endorsement by the Pakistan Army and also drew criticism of many within Pakistan. The gamble may just have paid off if the Pakistan Army and the deep state did not have alternate ideas. Prime Minister Modi waited for 15 months before he found himself fully comfortable to handle Pakistan. That is when he undertook the Ufa dialogue, the meeting of the two NSAs took place at Bangkok, also the visit of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to Islamabad for the Heart of Asia Conference 2015 and finally the boldest and what should have appeared the most sincere gesture – the surprise re-routing from Kabul to Lahore on Christmas day 2015, to meet and greet Sharif. The Pathankot terror attack followed seven days later.

So what should we make of all these arguments for and against. It is obvious that the last time hurry and bold initiatives did not pay off; in fact they got Prime Minister Modi much flak which he had to stave off. It is unlikely that he will wish to repeat that. Yet, he too would realise that with another five years at his disposal it may be good to start early now that Pakistan is in the economic dumps and isolated internationally. Positive gestures may draw positive response. It’s a difficult decision which has to keep in mind geopolitical realities, Indian public sentiment and timing, all of which are crucial. As a personal aside I would always recommend a slower start, monitoring responses and building the environment to keep the LoC and Kashmir quiet for an elongated period. That may provide a conducive environment for progress, if it has to take place at all. Besides that the FATF decision is soon awaited. An Indian invite to the Pakistan head of government will definitely go in Pakistan’s favour when the factors for and against are placed in balance at the FATF. India is surely in no mind to assist Pakistan with that.

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Updated Date: May 25, 2019 15:30:50 IST