Chance to reboot ties

Nawaz Sharif's first meeting with Narendra Modi sparked censure in Pakistan but dialogue shouldn't remain hostage to old rhetoric

Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif did not ruin Narendra Modi's swearing-in ceremony by unpleasant or embarrassing statements about UN resolutions or jugular veins. But India's Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh was not so polite. She focused squarely on the Mumbai terror attack and demanded a swift trial of the seven Pakistanis accused of orchestrating it. Sharif was risking brutal censure back home for not mentioning the 'K' word even as Singh was playing to the gallery. Should Nawaz have accepted the invitation in the first place if the outcome was going to be so one-sided?

The perennial naysayers are already shaking their heads in disgust: Nawaz foolishly went the extra mile and Modi brutally stopped him in his tracks. Nawaz expressed a desire to move forward unconditionally and stressed the importance of trade and people-to-people contacts but Modi trotted out the usual mantra of terrorism-related conditionalities. A leap from Nawaz and not even a forward step from Modi.

But is this the real picture? What happened behind the scenes? How is the public posture of each different from their perception of the ground realities articulated in their hour-long talk? Surely, the official press release of South Block is not the full picture.

Nawaz was clear from day one that he would accept the invitation to attend the swearing-in of India's newly elected Prime Minister. He deliberately left the announcement to be made a little late in order to avoid controversy. According to veteran journalist Najam Sethi, Nawaz did not seek the military's permission; he only informed them. He got a brief from the Foreign Office but not from the ISI. National Security Adviser Sartaj Aziz and the Foreign Office advised him to attend the swearing-in and banquet and return the same day without a bilateral meeting. Nawaz knew the brief included input from the military. The brass was okay as long as he did not commit himself unequivocally to anything concrete in the bilateral meeting. They want him to do it in a structured way later. When he saw the brief, he knew exactly what it was.

Army chief General Raheel Sharif met Chief Minister of Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif, on Sunday to discuss these issues. The general told the prime minister's brother that since Mian Sahib did not take brief from us, we are briefing you instead. The chief minister was told that on the India front, the military wants the PM to go slow. Despite a clear message from the establishment, Nawaz Sharif decided to do things on his own terms. "He has put his neck on the line by stressing unconditional talks and if the Indians keep on harping about pre-conditions, then the potential magic of this moment will be lost," says Sethi.

Journalist Ejaz Haider thinks Modi has played a smart hand, luring Nawaz in and extending hospitality before moving in and delivering a jab. "Sharif fell for it and was felled by it because he genuinely sought this opportunity to make some headway. But this was a miscalculation. Notice the contrast: While Modi presented his demands and nearly threw the dialogue process back to the pre-Thimphu period, Sharif avoided a meeting with the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, thinking that would vitiate the atmosphere," says Haider. None of this would have happened, Haider believes, if Nawaz had sent the speaker of the National Assembly instead of going himself to make some kind of history.

Others feel that by not talking about Kashmir in his press conference and not meeting Kashmiri separatists, Nawaz has sent a strong signal to the military establishment and Pakistan-based Kashmiri jihadi groups. Meeting Kashmiri separatists right after a Modi win would have been a political faux pas. "Mian Sahib perhaps realises that Pakistan is operating on a thin goodwill margin with India and the rest of the world thanks to the shenanigans of his country's security establishment and, therefore, didn't want to squander an opportunity to at least seek a breakthrough," says Daily Times columnist Mohammad Taqi. All things considered, the meeting is a baby step and not a giant diplomatic leap forward.

According to insiders, Nawaz told his Indian counterpart in their bilateral meeting that there was no point in putting pre-conditions to a dialogue or raking up the past or indulging in a blame game, and that both should look to the future and how to smoothen out the bumps on the highway. He told Modi that he did not give Non-Discriminatory Market Access (NDMA) - new name for MFN status - to the Congress so that it would not be exploited by it in the elections against BJP. Nawaz also talked of demilitarising Siachen, opening up the visa regime and playing cricket. Most important, he asked for a vigorous back-channel on Kashmir.

Mian sahib's diplomatic instinct seems right. Bringing up old baggage at an ice-breaking event could have entailed turbulence on Nawaz's maiden peace flight. The prime minister will, indeed, come under pressure from religious and political groups that shriek in chorus with the Pakistan Army because keeping the conflict with India alive is their, not Pakistan's, raison d'etre. "Mian sahib would be well advised to look over his shoulder as another Kargil, Mumbai or even October 11, 1999 is not beyond those who are ratcheting up jingoism in Pakistan by the minute. He has his work cut out for him at home, not in Delhi," says Taqi.

Secretary General of the South Asian Free Media Association Imtiaz Alam hailed Nawaz's decision to visit India. "It was a goodwill visit. Sharif is trying to pick up the thread from 1999 by referring again and again to the Lahore Declaration and his understanding with Vajpayee," says Alam. In February 1999, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited Pakistan aboard the maiden bus service between the two countries. The visit was seen as an important breakthrough following nuclear tests by both India and Pakistan in 1998. Sharif and Vajpayee signed the Lahore Declaration, a bilateral agreement, which was ratified by Indian and Pakistani parliaments. The military establishment was not happy with the pro-peace moves of the Nawaz government and tried to sabotage it through the Kargil war. Tensions between Nawaz and then army chief General Pervez Musharraf escalated following the misadventure; not only did it jeopardise the peace process, it also paved the way for the ouster of the Nawaz government through a military coup in October 1999.

By visiting Vajpayee during his recent Delhi visit, Nawaz has once again reiterated his commitment to peace with India. He feels that the BJP and Modi will subscribe to the Vajpayee legacy. Imtiaz Alam thinks it was a good time to start the composite dialogue but it appears Delhi will still wait for Pakistan to address its concerns on terrorism. By inviting all SAARC leaders to his swearing-in ceremony, Modi has shown keenness about the region; the same vision is shared by Nawaz. "The situation demands that talks should not be held hostage to the core issues of either side. It remains to be seen whether Modi will outgrow his hawkish image or get bogged down in a proxy war in Afghanistan," says Alam. Many in Pakistan are apprehensive that Modi may be more aggressive in Afghanistan.

Political commentator Umair Javed feels there is a shared understanding of domestic compulsions that each leader faces. By accepting the invitation along with other SAARC leaders, Nawaz recognised the Indians' somewhat superior role as a regional authority and the need to mend fences even if it is for purely selfish reasons, that is economic growth and civilian supremacy. Javed thinks it is encouraging that Nawaz and his party heads have charted an independent course by ignoring the antagonism of both the military and the hard right-wing forces such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba. "The idea of trade would be central to their understanding of growth and Indian states with an advantage in manufacturing, such as Gujarat, would gain considerably, as would Punjab in Pakistan as a market full of consumers," says Javed. He says both Nawaz and Modi have similar core support bases-the aspirational middle class and the businesses -and hence recognise the need to enhance economic growth of a particular nature. On trade, there is already an agreement and action plan, which the Pakistanis were about to announce, but kept pending, to signal a good start with Modi. Both Nawaz and Modi are powerful prime ministers but it remains to be seen whether they can deliver on their promises.

(Originally published in India Today)

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