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15 July, 2015

India-Pakistan reality check

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

’s on again. The joint statement issued after Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif met at Ufa, Russia, signals that India and Pakistan are ready to resume bilateral talks which have been moving on an ‘on-again, off-again’ course for years.

Modi had invited all South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation leaders, including Nawaz Sharif, to attend his swearing-in ceremony last year, and they had all turned up. The development was widely seen as an indication of Modi’s eagerness to improve India’s relations with neighbours and their willingness to reciprocate.

However, India-Pakistan relations suffered a setback soon afterwards. Pakistan’s High Commissioner in New Delhi held consultations with some separatist leaders of Kashmir ahead of a scheduled meeting between Foreign Secretaries of the two countries, and the Modi government responded by cancelling the meeting.

Many at home criticised the decision. They pointed out that earlier, too, the Pakistani envoy had conferred with separatists before a bilateral meeting without inviting such a response. Besides, continued talks were the only sensible course before the two countries. However, Modi had to satisfy his Sangh Parivar followers who had been fed on anti-Pakistan rhetoric.

When India’s Foreign Secretary, S Jaishankar, was in Islamabad last March in the course of a tour of SAARC countries he discussed with his Pakistani counterpart, Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry, ways to resume the dialogue process step by step without setting a time-frame.

The important decisions that emerged from the Modi-Sharif meeting include a meeting between the National Security Advisers of the two countries in New Delhi to discuss terrorism-related issues and a meeting between commanders of the Border Security Force and the Pakistani Rangers to de-escalate tension along the Jammu-Kashmir border, to be followed by a meeting between the Directors-General of Military Operations of the two countries.

India has entertained for long the feeling that Islamabad is not pursuing the case against the Pakistan-based terror group responsible for the 26/11 attack on Mumbai which left 166 people dead. According to Indian officials, a major takeaway of the Modi-Sharif meeting is Pakistan’s offer to cooperate in the terror attack trial by providing voice samples of suspects. It is not clear if the law permits the Pakistan government to do this.

Relations with Pakistan have been a contentious issue in domestic politics. Ironically the Congress, which was in power longer than any other party, is now plugging a critical line which is reminiscent of what the Bharatiya Janata Party did when it was in the opposition

For long the standard phrase in India-Pakistan joint communiqués was that the talks covered all issues, including Kashmir. After the cancellation of Secretary-level talks India was keen to shift the focus from Kashmir to terrorism.

Much of the latest communiqué is taken up by the issue of terrorism. What’s more, there is no specific mention of Kashmir. Indian officials cite this as evidence of Pakistani acceptance of the Indian stand.

However, they also concede, albeit indirectly, that India has been under pressure from the West to resume the dialogue with Pakistan. The US and other foreign governments have been warning India that recurrent exchange of fire along the line of actual control and belligerent statements by BJP leaders, including ministers, were leading to expansion of the Pakistan army’s engagement with terror groups.

The most positive aspect of the new situation is that leaders on both sides who were riding the high horse have come to terms with ground realities. However, they still have to proceed cautiously because of the compulsions of domestic politics.

Even as the BJP was labouring to present the Ufa outcome as a feather on Modi’s cap, Uddhav Thackeray, head of its closest ideological ally, the Shiv Sena, said the meeting with Sharif was unfortunate. “The neighbouring country needs to be taught a lesson in a manner it understands,” he added.

That the dialogue will now be at the level of National Security Advisers, and not Foreign Secretaries, suggests that India-Pakistan relations will be handled directly by the Prime Minister and his office, bypassing the External Affairs Ministry and its officials with experience of diplomatic engagements.

Modi and Nawaz Sharif were in Ufa for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit. SCO admitted both India and Pakistan as full-fledged members at this meeting. It thus becomes another forum where the two countries will work together as equal partners.--Gulf Today, July 14, 2015.

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