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December 30, 2015

The Modi magic


December 30, 2015

The writer is a retired air-vice
marshal, former ambassador and a security and political analyst.

Was this for real? An Indian prime minister calls his counterpart in Pakistan and wishes to come over to personally convey his birthday wishes? An impulsive decision? Or, well after some brief thought; brief as it goes in diplomacy, like an evening before while talking to his inner group?

I hope that it was the former. That, wanting to wish Nawaz Sharif on the latter’s 66th birthday, Modi may have simply said: ‘Hell, I am going to be crossing over his territory on my way home from Kabul, why don’t I just drop by’. Just as casually as one would when knowing that a friend or an acquaintance lives not too far from the road one is travelling on.

Let me share with you an open secret from tens of Track IIs that we hold between our two countries where so-called peaceniks and candle-lighting dreamers – not all I might add – wonder of a day when a prime minister of either India or Pakistan – and add Afghanistan to it for a good measure – calls the other prime minister to see if he could drop in for tea, or lunch? If yes, then all it takes is a 35-minute fight to drop in and say ‘hello’.

What they then end up talking about may be life and death matters for the two nations, but imagine if they could just meet up as often and as simply without the bureaucratic and establishmentarian trappings and end up chatting as colleagues do. It cannot come better than that.

Till now, it was only a dream. Then it unhinged everybody invested in the established ways. I know, there are different ‘takes’ on it, and I will explain why I tend to go along with the hypothesis of spontaneity more than an international conspiracy that may have pushed Modi to make the birthday call. For one, I want to live in the dream-world a bit longer and sustain the charm of the magic that leaves one curious, intrigued as well as enchanted in a loving way; and I am a realist too not to forget what is at stake here. But don’t you think it is kind of cute.

The young Mehrunnisa may savour her special day with some precious memories of a neighbouring prime minister dropping in to wish her a blissful married life, but in the larger context it may just have been a moment when things stopped being how they had been. Oh, if for nothing else, for posterity, when there is so much good to have and make.

One can understand why it is so difficult to take in. We all are raised in a certain style of thinking when dealing with India-Pakistan issues. A slow, deliberate, incremental, structured, doubting mien; always trying to see behind the facade. Never accepting what appears at face value, with sufficient reason, one might add – the history of our two-nations is chequered, leaving us circumspect. We thus remain non-committal, cautious, sceptical and fearful, and hate surprise even when it is good.

We have never given ourselves the freedom to think positive or on a happier note. Our glum faces, while discussing Indo-Pakistan issues, only reflect pessimism, defeatism and morbidity that nothing can seem to wash away – till someone like Modi walks in and changes the paradigm of possibilities. Cheer up; no one can snatch away your family silver in a handshake.

Modi thinks fast because he talks fast. He is in his element when unrehearsed and uncoached. Such a man can think and say anything, anytime; sometime something good as well. Only his types decide something on the spur, which in diplomacy is heresy. He is the prime minister of India and will always have India’s interests upmost in his mind (why do we assume that being nice and friendly means giving up one’s interests and submitting before others?). But what he will surely do is to take a road ‘less travelled’, creating opportunities for fresher experiences and opportunities. That is what will change the paradigm of engagement.

The more methodical and calculated Manmohan Singh tried his utmost to somehow make it to Pakistan for a visit to his native land and just could not breach the fears that blocked his way. Remember also the times when half our diplomatic effort was to somehow get an Indian prime minister to visit Pakistan? It is good that Modi came, but be under no illusions: he did not make this visit to gift Kashmir to the PM as a birthday present. For that the road remains long and hard.

In strategy there is something called an OODA loop which aims at snatching the initiative away from the other and keeping him in a lag - reactive, never sure of what might come next, and more consumed by responding to what has already come his way as a surprise.

Modi’s visit to Lahore came close, despite being essentially a personal visit; but look at the implications. The man is sure of himself – despite the drubbing that he has been dealt domestically. He has the guts to spring a surprise in international diplomacy. He can walk into your house at the time of his choosing and say what he pleases – at times nice things. And he is unfettered and unshackled from convention. You don’t know what he might do next. Those incremental, deliberate, structured, and coached types simply keep guessing. This is when he moves far ahead of you in the OODA loop.

Poor Mian Sahib. But let me tell you he is not without his streak either. And I hope I am not busting the Official Secrets Act here, but it was August 1999; Kargil had just concluded with Mian Sahib’s 4th of July Yatra. For a previously arranged visit to China, Nawaz Sharif led this formidable delegation to Beijing aboard the VVIP aircraft. Mid air, as the core group assembled to rethink their work ahead along with the prime minister, a sudden thought occurred to Mian Sahib. He proposed that we all route via Delhi on the return leg and meet up with Vajpayee Sahib who surely was a bit down because of Kargil and the blunting of his Bus Yatra, and thus in need of some repair. An apology and an explanation just might help.

With one service chief on-board, (which is why I happened to be around), in the company of Reverend Tariq Fatemi, it took some doing to keep the PM from taking that route. The matter was still open till we landed at Hong Kong on the return leg and only the glitz of the place gave us a replaceable lift instead.

For those who perpetually fear losing the family silver, here is a bit of realism. Neither Mian Sahib nor anyone else, by themselves, can give up or win Kashmir. These issues will see their end only through a deliberate, structured process by experts. This will take time. In the meanwhile, visits and interactions like the two prime ministers have had in the recent weeks – candid, friendly and impromptu – if studiously sustained, will instil and improve mutual confidence to take on more complex issues.

They will also help open frontiers to newer engagements filling in the remaining spaces on the ‘comprehensive’ list. Think disease, poverty, education, environment and water – stuff that makes you human. At the least, Ajit Doval will be kept under some check given the atmospherics. The meeting at Jati Umra exhibited political will and direction to pursue what is necessary to these ends.

Sushma Swaraj, speaking in the Indian parliament, said that such dialogue would need to be ‘uninterruptible’. They will need to be bold and brave to make it happen. Like Modi. I am simply fascinated watching this man go about his business. It will be at one’s peril though to disregard his other avatar. Watch this space.

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