The Sharif-Modi era of Pakistan-India relations today faces the kind of dual-track challenge that it has not yet faced — Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit’s observation on the suspension of the bilateral process confirms this.
In the early days of this era, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s invitation to PM Nawaz Sharif to attend his swearing-in ceremony was supposed to be the grand gesture that helped sweep away decades of mistrust between the two nations. Sharif’s decision to show up in New Delhi helped confirm the momentum that optimists in the region felt. And then there was the Hurriyat parley, and India’s decision to call off the foreign secretary talks. That was almost two years ago.
Back then, the basis for the cancellation of talks was iffy and questionable. Modi and his team, of which Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar was not yet a part, were criticised for it in Delhi, more than they were in Islamabad. The reversal took a while but by the Ufa summit in Russia, it was complete. Ufa was a vital tactical win for Modi but a setback for Sharif. And thus, that meeting also dissipated into failure. The cause was Pakistani indecision. Sharif took a lot of heat for the statement’s directness on the issues that matter to India (read terrorism) and indirectness on issues that matter to Pakistan (read Kashmir). The net result was the cancellation of the national security advisor-level talks in August 2015.
The net impact of the cancellation of the post-Ufa summit NSA talks was that both PMs were made to look weak and indecisive about what they wanted to do about bilateral relations. Modi’s remarkable international success is already the stuff of legend, but Sharif has also helped Pakistan make significant strides in engaging countries economically, diplomatically and otherwise. The sputtering aimlessness of Pakistan-India relations in the autumn of 2015 made both leaders look bad. It was a low point in the Sharif-Modi era.
The potential of the relationship was given a significant boost by a surprise meeting of the NSAs in Bangkok in December 2015, followed quickly by a sideline meeting between the two PMs in Paris at the climate change summit, and a historic Christmas Day visit to Lahore by Modi that, at the time, seemed like it would alter the momentum decisively in favour of those that seek normalised relations in South Asia.
Then Pathankot happened. Opponents of a better, brighter day for the region have learnt that where diplomatic disruptions sometimes fail to arrest the growing momentum of normalisation between Pakistan and India, a terrorist attack never does. But the reactions to Pathankot from both Indian officialdom and from the Pakistani authorities were smarter than the terrorists had bargained for. The Indian
government’s reserved and thoughtful reaction, combined with the Pakistani PM’s call to his counterpart and offer of support, followed up by the announcement of a Pakistani investigation, were all remarkable. The immediate reactions to Pathankot on both sides of the border were disruptive in a fresh, new way. They neutralised the terrorists’ ability to dictate the bilateral process.
Of course, there happen to be opponents of the bilateral normalisation process who are not terrorists. Many hardliners in both India and Pakistan would rather have their respective countries continue to relive the Groundhog Day of hostility and bitterness
as they cling to 20th-century postures and ways of working.
The arrest of the alleged Indian spy, Kulbhushan Yadav, in Pakistan in March is exactly the kind of 20th-century distraction to this process that both PMs need to find a way of addressing with a 21st-century mindset. The kind of mindset that prompted Sharif’s attendance at the Modi inauguration and Modi’s visit on Sharif’s birthday to Lahore.
Because the arrest only confirms long-held and widely believed suspicions about India’s malign intentions with respect to Pakistan’s internal security, it does not represent a new dynamic in the relationship. It does, however, lower the moral ground upon which India rests its case when it advocates against Pakistan at global forums. That, too, represents nothing new.
What Sharif and Modi need to realise is that the only new element in the relationship is their resilience thus far to ordinary and extraordinary disruptions to the normalisation process. The shadow of Pathankot and the arrest of Kulbhushan Yadav is the first time that these disruptions exist simultaneously on both sides of the border. If Modi and Sharif are serious about their brands as shapers of a new regional dynamic, they have an unprecedented opportunity to show it. Are they up to the challenge?
The writer is a former Pakistani diplomat