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January 11, 2016
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Gesture of the year or ‘poker’ diplomacy?

Opinion

January 11, 2016

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The outgoing year ended on an unexpectedly positive note in the India-Pakistan context. After a long chill, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in Lahore on a surprise goodwill visit to personally greet Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on the latter’s birthday, and to make a gracious appearance on Nawaz’s granddaughter’s wedding ceremony.

Modi’s brief Lahore yatra, though kept undisclosed till the very last moments, was indeed a rare cheerful event in the troubled history of India-Pakistan relations. There couldn’t have been a better ending, bilaterally as well as regionally, to the otherwise turbulent 2015.

The credit for this ingeniously choreographed Bollywood-style venture goes entirely to Narendra Modi, who from the very first day after assuming his office has been in the driver’s seat, not only controlling the ‘temperature’ in Islamabad by keeping it constantly in a ‘reactive’ rather than ‘active’ mode but also managing almost every development in India-Pakistan relations. Modi is a master of creating illusions that only a seasoned chess player would make against an amateur rival. He knows when to move his chess pieces and when to readjust them. He also knows when to checkmate and how to reposition his piece without even being seen doing so.

And he spares no opportunity to be truly himself – as he was in his December 2014 visit to Dhaka where he could not be more spiteful about Pakistan. Modi gloated over the role his country played in the 1971 dismemberment of Pakistan. There couldn’t have been a more provocative statement thus far from any Indian leader. After months of hawkish posturing, including heightening of tensions along the Line of Control and the Working Boundary, Modi suddenly changed. In February last year, prior to the 2015 Cricket World Cup, as a Big-Three leader, he called Nawaz Sharif to convey his good wishes, and then as a ‘goodwill’ gesture sent his new foreign secretary to Pakistan.

Modi made another five-minute telephone call to our prime minister at the beginning of Ramazan last year, a gesture that created balmy illusions of its own. Indeed, diplomacy is all about illusions. At the end of the day, what we ‘know’ and ‘understand’ largely depends on what we see in those illusions and what we feel or think about them. Whatever Modi’s real motives, his dramatic Lahore visit did mark the biggest surprise of all his diplomatic moves since he came to power. The people in both countries and in the region saw in Modi’s move a glimmer of hope for peace in their troubled region.

The year 2015 ended with more illusions. Modi’s two-minute ‘whispering’ tete-a-tete with Nawaz Sharif on the sidelines of the Climate Change Summit in Paris, his foreign minister Sushma Swaraj coming to Islamabad for the Heart of Asia conference and the decision to resume the long-stalled India-Pakistan dialogue, his out-of-the-blue telephone call from Kabul to Nawaz Sharif and visit to Lahore on December 25, and then within a week a bizarre terrorist ‘hold-out’ at India’s Pathankot airbase, all came together in a curious influx of dreamy illusions in India-Pakistan logjam. No wonder, questions abound on all these high-voltage events.

Apparently, under mounting domestic compulsions and irresistible external pressures as well as his country’s barefaced ambitions for regional supremacy and global power, not to mention its unremitting desire for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, and its fear of being left out in the emerging ‘connectivity’ networks in the region, Modi’s latest stroke of genius left everyone clueless on his real motives and intentions. The theatrical gesture looked too unreal to be true. The media in both countries was left speculating, spinning all sorts of wild theories and outlandish scenarios. Some looked at it as a familiar pattern in Modi’s illusory politics.

In India, questions were raised on the superficiality of the event, with some describing it as sheer ‘poker diplomacy’. A leading Indian newspaper found Modi’s dramatic trip to Lahore “in keeping with his general style” and said it “had all the dimensions of individualism and theatre that have become the hallmark of Prime Minister Narendra Modi‘s politics”. Even the New York Times questioned the credibility of Modi’s quirky move. Not denying the significance of Modi’s impromptu trip to Lahore, it said the Indian leader has in the past moved from one policy to the other and described it as “a diplomatic dance”.

Modi’s dramatic Lahore yatra could be best summed up in the famous Latin phrase ‘veni, vidi, vici’ (I came, I saw, I conquered) that Julius Caesar used after his quick victory in a short war against Pharnaces around 46BC. His sense of elation was not entirely baseless. The story of their ‘goodwill’ conversation at Nawaz Sharif’s personal residence in Jati Umra says it all. A Pakistani source revealed the meeting between Modi and Sharif was so cordial that during their almost 50-minute conversation, there was no mention of any substantive matter. But then it was not an occasion for substantive discussion.

It was a personal ‘family’ visit that media hyped beyond proportions. There was no room or cause for any kind of euphoria. Modi did manage to globally elevate his personal profile as a peacemaker but in the process he was leaving the ball again in Pakistan’s court. Within days, with the unfolding Pathankot scene, Pakistan found itself again facing the same old calibrated campaign that every Indian prime minister, from Vajpayee to Manmohan Singh and now Narendra Modi, has pursued – to redefine the issue of Kashmir into one of terrorism. Modi is now reaping the ‘low-hanging’ harvest his last two predecessors have been sowing and nurturing

Taking advantage of the situation, Modi reportedly proposed to Nawaz Sharif “why can’t we be like leaders in Europe, who meet each other for casual get-togethers and chats?” The Jati Umra ‘talk’ was the beginning of the friendly engagement. According to published reports, it centred on ‘positives’, with neither side trying to put the other on the defensive. It was a rare bonhomie with “Sharif really relaxed...and using Punjabi humour to keep everyone at ease”. If that was really so, the process, it seems, is going to be great fun.

But here one is reminded of the famous line from Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio.” When it comes to brass-tacks in official dialogue, both will have to bring some seriousness of purpose to the process. Their problems are real and will not disappear or work out on their own as some people on both sides have lately started believing. India-Pakistan peace will not come through corporate links or exchange of personal cameos including gifts of jewellery, saris, shawls, safas (turbans) or even gestures of humility in clasped hands.

The dialogue prospect is already overcast with Pathankot shadows. India and Pakistan need to come out of their mutually recriminatory mode and learn to work together, not against each other, in combating a common enemy. They must develop a clearer framework of principles to be able to organise their future relations and explore peaceful solutions to their problems, including Kashmir. To do so, there is no alternative to an uninterrupted, purposeful dialogue.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.

Email: [email protected]

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