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Why Modi government engaged Pakistan in secrecy

December 07, 2015 17:28 IST

The outcome of the Bangkok NSA-level talks underscores that Pakistan has got exactly what it wanted -- talks at different levels, talks on Kashmir, talks on mutual concerns regarding terrorism, talks on ceasefire on the border. What if any has been India’s gains remains unexplained, says Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar.

There can be no two opinions that the resumption of talks between India and Pakistan is always a welcome development. India’s obdurate stance on dialogue had become unsustainable.

The Indian stance on talks with Pakistan, which was forcefully articulated by none other than External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj in August in a memorable press conference in Delhi, had completely collapsed.

However, if the Indian public tends to see the meeting between the national security advisors of the two countries that took place in Bangkok on Sunday as a grand betrayal, the government can only blame itself.

The government made no effort to take the public into confidence following the 167-second meeting between the two prime ministers in Paris over a week ago to put across the point of view that a pressing need has arisen to re-engage Pakistan.

At a minimum, Delhi could have avoided the shroud of secrecy beneath the four-hour long engagement in Bangkok yesterday in a “candid, constructive and constructive atmosphere”. It is all too funny for words.

What explains the need for such cloak-and-dagger Kissinger-style diplomacy? Was it to cover up the dramatic U-turn in the government’s Pakistan policy?

One would like to believe that Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself had a profound rethink and decided that it is in the national interest to resume the dialogue with Pakistan. 

But, then, the spin being given to the Bangkok meeting by government sources is dripping with sophistry. It is pathetic to hear the spin that while the Kashmir issue came up during the Bangkok meeting, it was only about the ‘law and order’ part of the issue and not the ‘political part’.

The public expects and deserves a credible explanation. To be sure, the government can make a convincing case to explain to the public that a fundamental rethink in the country’s Pakistan policy has become necessary and unavoidable.

Any number of convincing reasons can be advanced to explain why India will be far better off without carrying the Albatross of the Kashmir issue, without the border tensions, without having to live under the shadow of terrorism.

The emergent new Cold War tensions and a strong likelihood of South Asia becoming a major theatre where big-power rivalries play out; the fragile regional security scenario; the spectre of the Islamic State haunting the region; the Afghan endgame; the imperatives of regional cooperation for India as an emerging power -- all these are compelling reasons why India ought to remain engaged with Pakistan in the present fluid climate of regional and international politics.  

The country knows that a reintegration of the Taliban with the mainstream Afghan national life is what the international community demands today. On the other hand, it also knows that Pakistan today cannot pose any real threat to India and is focused largely on its own internal problems.

Clearly, our ‘containment strategy’ against Pakistan has not worked. Indian diplomacy has failed to isolate Pakistan in the world community.

On the contrary, Pakistan has successfully projected itself as a reasonable interlocutor, open to dialogue with India without pre-conditions to resolve differences peacefully through discussions, and has been far more optimal than India in the pursuit of a multi-vector foreign policy, which is attuned to the multipolar world.

In sum, what India needs is indeed a leap of faith in its Pakistan policy so that an uninterruptible engagement with that country becomes possible.

Modi is likely to visit Pakistan in November next year. Sufficient ground can be covered in the 11-month period ahead so that Modi’s Pakistan visit becomes a landmark event in the history and politics of the subcontinent.

Of course, it is a daunting challenge to resolve the longstanding differences with Pakistan unless there is a national consensus behind it.

The best hope, therefore, is that Modi has girded up his loins to marginalise the “hawks” in his own camp, and in a chastened mood after the crushing defeat in the Bihar state elections, proposes to turn a new leaf.

But, then, things are not as simple as they might seem. The point is, the Modi government is entrapped in its own legacy. The majority opinion in the country favors normalisation with Pakistan, while it is the government’s “natural allies” who are clamouring for Hindu rashtra, Akhand Bharat, annexation of the Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir and the Northern Areas and such other bizarre ideas.

Unless these “natural allies” are reined in, it becomes problematic for the Modi government to pursue a consistent policy aimed at normalisation of India’s relations with Pakistan.

All in all, the secretive air about the scheduling of the Bangkok meeting and the laboured explanations since being given to it engender the uneasy feeling that the government remains a prisoner of its hardline constituency of militant nationalism.

In the absence of any rational explanation, the only conclusion one can draw is that the government may be acting under international pressure -- plainly put, Modi may have caved in under pressure from the US and simply going through the motions of engagement with Pakistan.

However, the great difficulty with such an explanation is that if it is indeed the case, the government is once again lurching toward an engagement with Pakistan without a coherent agenda or ‘big picture’ in view.

The danger here is that such on-again, off-again engagements with an adversarial power like Pakistan cannot have a happy ending. This fresh splurge in “constructive engagement” of Pakistan without a coherent agenda and a big picture in mind -- and simply to please Barack Obama or David Cameron -- can prove a costly misadventure, because, make no mistake, Islamabad knows precisely what it wants and it has not budged an inch from the position it took in August.

The widespread feeling in Pakistan is that normalisation with India will have to wait for the post-Modi era. If anything, Pakistan’s position has only hardened since August.

According to the grapevine, Islamabad plainly ignored Modi’s repeated overtures in September for a meeting with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, before finally condescending to the 167-second meeting and the handshake in Paris -- and that, too, only after the visits by Prime Minister Sharif and army chief Gen Raheel Sharif to the US, which shored up American support for Pakistan’s core concerns such as talks with India on Kashmir, “strategic balance” in South Asia, “mutual concerns” with India regarding terrorism, peace and tranquility on the border, etc.

The outcome of the Bangkok talks underscores that Pakistan has got exactly what it wanted -- talks at different levels, talks on Kashmir, talks on mutual concerns regarding terrorism, talks on ceasefire on the border. What if any has been India’s gains remains unexplained.

Someone in the government should throw light on this area of darkness.

Image: National Security Advisor Ajit Doval shakes hands with his Pakistani counterpart Nasir Janjua in Bangkok. Photograph: External Affairs Ministry.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar served in India's high commission in Pakistan during his long and distinguished diplomatic career.

M K Bhadrakumar