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A moderate Modi and stable Sharif can mend Indo-Pakistan ties

Aryaman Bhatnagar | Updated on: 13 July 2015, 14:02 IST
QUICK PILL

The thaw

  • Prime ministers of India and Pakistan met at Ufa in Russia. Joint statement issued by foreign secretaries is encouraging.
  • There is no mention of Kashmir. Pakistan condemned terrorism and pledged to expedite the 26/11 trial.
  • The statement is a bold gesture on PM Nawaz Sharif\'s part. Real challenge is taking it forward.

Challenges

  • PM Modi needs to show consistency in dealing with Pakistan. He must not react to domestic criticism.
  • Sharif\'s problems are more structural. Military establishment still shapes Pakistan\'s India policy.
  • Yet there have been signs of a shift in Pakistan\'s approach towards terror groups after Peshawar attack.

It can be very tempting to not be overly optimistic following the recent meeting between Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif in Ufa, Russia. There is a sense of familiarity to the manner in which India-Pakistan relations unfold.

Based on the trajectory over the past decade and a half, optimism tends to give way relatively soon to a tense phase marked by hostile rhetoric, accusatory statements and border skirmishes. Bilateral relations over the course of Modi's brief tenure have also panned out in this way.

But will things be different this time round? From New Delhi's perspective, the joint statement, issued by the two Foreign Secretaries, provides a solid foundation - at least in principle - to pursue relations in a constructive manner.

Kashmir has been omitted from the statement and was reportedly not discussed during the meeting. Equally important are Pakistan's condemnation of terrorism and the commitment to expedite - and help with - the Mumbai trials.

This is particularly significant for India as the dialogue process for it has come to revolve around the terrorism issue. India's refusal to work around it and Pakistan's unwillingness - or inability - to contain it has prevented relations from moving forward in a meaningful manner.

Modi must not react to criticism from domestic constituencies that will follow any incident pertaining to Pakistan

That India called for this meeting clearly shows that Modi is still keen to improve relations with Pakistan. Better relations with all of India's neighbours is critical for Modi in the pursuit of his objective of "political stability, progress and peace in the region" for the overall growth and development of South Asia. At the same time the statement itself is an extremely bold gesture on Sharif's part.

However, the difficult part starts now and only a bolder commitment to the cause, from both sides, from this point on can ensure that this meeting does not remain a merely symbolic one.

Overcoming domestic opposition

For Modi, there needs to be greater consistency in his Pakistan policy. His claims of wanting better relations with Pakistan have not always been reflected by his approach. The statements of some of his ministers have not helped matters either.

Such remarks, past decisions to call off talks prematurely and his more "muscular" approach in general weaken Sharif's standing in Pakistan while increasing apprehensions about Modi and strengthening perceptions in Pakistan about India's lack of sincerity towards sustaining a genuine dialogue.

Similarly, Modi must resist reacting to criticism from domestic constituencies that is likely to follow any incident or development pertaining to Pakistan. This had been one of the shortcomings of India's Pakistan policy during Manmohan Singh's time.

Quite often, the growing domestic pressure from the political opposition, and the foreign policy and military establishment, to take action compelled his government to adopt a more hostile tone that was not conducive for talks.

Paradigm shift?

While it is important for New Delhi to remain engaged with Islamabad, Sharif also has to live up to his part of the agreement. However, unlike Modi, his problems are structural.

There is nothing to suggest as of now that the military establishment at Rawalpindi has relinquished control over the country's foreign policy or that its stance on India has changed dramatically.

As such, it remains to be seen whether Sharif - who during the latter half of 2014 was battling the possibility of another military coup - has the necessary wherewithal to actually deliver on these promises.

It is can be argued that such commitments would not have been possible in the first place without the military's tacit backing. Such a scenario may grant Sharif more manoeuvrability to operate, but success would still be contingent on the sincerity of Rawalpindi's "change of heart".

Following the Peshawar school attacks in December 2014, there was much talk about a paradigm shift in the Pakistan military's strategic outlook.

It has intensified its campaign against militant groups in the tribal areas and it may in fact be willing to play a more constructive role in Afghanistan as well - the latest round of the Afghan peace talks in Murree being a possible indicator.

While these are definitely positive signs, it may not mean much for India-Pakistan relations. No action has been taken against groups that pose a direct threat to India. Just days before the Ufa meeting, Islamabad declared that it would not ban the Hafiz Saeed-led Jamaat-ud-Dawah (JuD), the parent organisation of the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (LeT) - two groups against whom India has persistently demanded action.

Till stronger action is taken against such groups, the issue of terrorism will continue to cast its shadow over the bilateral relations.

However, it is important for India to acknowledge that given Pakistan's struggle against its own insurgency, and the increasing instability in Afghanistan, Rawalpindi may not have the capacity to mount a simultaneous campaign against all groups.

If relations have to move forward, New Delhi's notion that Rawalpindi will continue to use terror groups against it needs to be tempered with the belief that there is a possibility that the changing internal security dynamics in Pakistan can gradually bring about a change in the military's strategic calculus.

First published: 13 July 2015, 14:02 IST
 
Aryaman Bhatnagar @aryaman89

The author is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

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