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A matter of opinion

January 02, 2016


The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

INDIAN Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s stopover in Lahore on Christmas Day seemed to have caught the media totally unawares and the top guns belonging to the reputedly well-informed anchor and commentator community didn’t seem to like this.

Therefore, their reaction was not surprising as the commentary ranged from criticism of the Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for every conceivable folly including running the foreign policy as a ‘family’ enterprise to questioning the merits of his decision to invite Modi on short notice at the latter’s request as he headed home to Delhi from Kabul.

Even the usually measured commentators seemed to assume ignorance as far as the roller-coaster, several decades long history of Pakistan-India relations is concerned and warned against pinning too many expectations on the short visit.

It isn’t difficult to understand this reaction as steps aimed at attaining a modicum of moderation and normality in the troubled relations between the two South Asian nuclear-armed neighbours seemed to have been taken at an unusually rapid pace. The rhetoric of the months since Sharif accepted Modi’s invitation to attend his inauguration in May 2014 in Delhi as a gesture of goodwill marked a definite downtrend in relations as did violent incidents across the Line of Control in Kashmir and further south.

So from May 2014 to pretty much November 2015, a period of a year and a half saw nothing concrete despite international calls for the two sides to talk. The only contact came at a summit in Ufa in July last year where their joint statement mentioned ‘terrorism’ as a key issue to the chagrin of many commentators and guardians of the security state in Pakistan. This jettisoned any further dialogue.

One can be sure the Kashmir dispute won’t be resolved anytime soon, but it’s good to see India and Pakistan talking.

Then, of course, towards the end of last November the two leaders were photographed in a huddle, on the fringe of the Paris earth summit for a meeting described as a chance handshake in the corridor followed by the exchange of pleasantries for a couple of minutes. Who knows if this is where it was agreed that the two sides needed to engage with one another and away from the media glare as peace and quiet were required for a serious discussion on a raft of rather thorny issues? But such a decision was made alright.

It was perhaps why the media didn’t get a whiff of the meeting between the two prime minister’s national security advisers in distant Bangkok in the first week of last month until well after the four-hour talks had ended, paving the way for more engagement.

It wasn’t without significance that Indian prime minister’s NSA, Ajit Doval is a former head of his country’s external intelligence agency better known as RAW and his Pakistani counterpart, Nasser Khan Janjua, a just retired lieutenant-general of the Pakistan Army. Thus, each would represent a hardline constituency in their respective country.

If these two had agreed to take the dialogue process forward, leading to Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s arrival in Islamabad a couple of days later, it appeared indicative of a desire to move away from the acrimonious past which had stalled any meaningful contact. Yes, international pressure abounded with nudges coming Modi’s way from Barack Obama and a host of European leaders but such suggestions have been made in the past and ignored without compunction by the Indian leadership.

Of course, added urgency to the appeals by global leaders may have come from reports that the Indian military was developing its ‘Cold Start’ strategy aimed at extraordinarily quick mobilisation of assets to launch ‘surprise’ punitive raids across the border in the event of a terror attack traced to the western neighbour.

These reports were met by the Pakistani military leadership’s declaration that any such move by the Indian military would be matched blow for blow. Then persistent reports in the international media talked of Pakistan’s continuing production, stockpiling of tactical nuclear warheads and its trials of delivery systems. Once raised, no matter how distant and remote, the spectre of a nuclear exchange, spiralling into a holocaust would compel all but the insane to sit up, look around and try to reduce the threat if not eliminate the possibility altogether.

So, no I have no great expectation of any resolution of the Kashmir dispute in accordance with the will of the Kashmiri people over the coming days; it would be utterly foolhardy of me to assume that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s hardline ideology, its commitment to Hindutva and Akhand Bharat will evaporate into thin air as a result of this one stopover.

Neither do I believe that our fight against terrorism has reached such successes that another Mumbai can be ruled out in its entirety with all its ugly manifestations. But I do know that I am content watching the two nuclear-armed rivals talking to each other.

For when a rapport is established between two leaders before any crisis hits unresolvable proportions the two retain the ability to perhaps pick up the phone and try and find a way out of mutually assured destruction. That is how little, how few my expectations are. Many people I know would also be relieved just to see a mechanism being put in place to remove the prospect of a mushroom cloud casting a shadow over their children’s future. That is our starting point.

If trade and economic interests create deeper bonds, the rationale for greater regional amity and integration who knows even the Kashmir dispute will see a resolution with its people able to exercise free choice whichever way they wish to.

And, if in this change, a small messenger’s cameo role was played by a steel tycoon by the name of Jindal do I care? Why distrust the motives of our elected premier? Perhaps, two pro-business leaders can see the huge peace dividend their more traditional forerunners couldn’t.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, January 2nd, 2016