The flight to New Delhi for Pakistan’s Prime Minister to attend Narendra Modi’s inaugural among other Saarc leaders is a short one, but is nothing short of a diplomatic coup for both. The symbolic ceremonials of the event can at best be, well, just that: Symbolic.
It is Nawaz Sharif’s bilateral meeting with the newly anointed PM of India, Narendra Modi, that has more than all the usual suspects chattering. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the average Pakistani no longer thinks about India, except to visit, trade or watch Bollywood movies. But this time, everyone has an opinion on two things: whether Sharif should have gone or not, and more importantly what he should expect from his first meeting with a BJP PM.
As former President Zardari said in support of the move, it’s a good decision, but a difficult one. It’s a tough call because hardliners are at their shrillest peak in trashing any recipro-city as a compromise with received history, Kashmir and Gujarat. Sharif must also know that to be taken seriously on foreign policy, the current muddle-through on counterterrorism policy at home must change.
But it is smart politics because the positives far outweigh the negatives, just like the numbers for the decision far outweigh those against it in Parliament. Pakistan is now a noisy democracy. Its elected representatives have spoken with a consensus on waging peace with India, which includes the main opposition party.
Given the limits of short-run diplomacy, what can take this meeting beyond a photo-op?
A first encounter after years of stalled dialogue can only hope to do three things. If the aim is to reset ties, and not just drive PM Modi’s stock up on the global stage, then the two can at least go beyond sizing each other up.They can use the meeting to kick-start a long, often challenging journey of planned engagement to make South Asia a prohibitive, lonelier place on the planet for terrorists, poverty and energy insecurity. They don’t need to make a calendar or a roadmap. That’s not what prime ministers do. But they can certainly direct their foreign and home ministries to plot a course for the ‘new normal’. They can flesh this out in September at the UN sidelines, or earlier.
Two, they can buck a trend, and some criticism, to set a higher value on legacy politics than on just business. Don’t get me wrong. Business, trade, economic integration are the future, and must drive the motor for game-change. Yet all of us who have been powerful advocates of economic change as the lead engine in bilateral ties, have to step back and remind ourselves that while rightist governments dominate in both countries, at this point in time, history will not bend without a hand at its helm. The politics of extremism is at an unprecedented high in both countries, albeit in very different form and intensity. Pakistan faces a rash of terrorist violence and intolerance bordering on bigotry, especially with minorities. Afghanistan is facing multiple vulnerabilities, including a security and economic vacuum. Such transition likely, if not surely, begets chaos. And while comparisons with Indian formal protections against religious intolerance may be odious and even misplaced, to the outside world, BJP is still the benign face of a communalist machine that messaged anti-Pakistan sentiment in its election campaign. This is in stark contrast to Pakistan’s election where none of the mainstream political parties even bothered to mention, let alone demonise, India.
So what must the business-backed PMs do? Still plug hard for economic ties, but make the executive leap to broader course correction and resumption of full spectrum composite dialogue, including Kashmir. Before that can realistically be uninterruptible, PM Sharif has the Mumbai-trial baggage to sort, while PM Modi has to moderate some of his colleagues’ hawkish talk.
Lastly, Messrs Modi and Sharif really should take 10 minutes out to game out what happens in event of a crisis.
Let’s not even pretend that the region is inured from that, or that through this year or the next the Line of Control cannot flare up dangerously. Both must know that any real test of diplomacy will be during a flashpoint moment. Heads of nuclear states usually get this. Yet we still leave two hot borders and crisis management systems on autopilot. Both have been in politics long enough to know that usually between India and Pakistan, broad policy intentions spelt out at press stakeouts fall into the black hole of strategic drift. So before the next crisis erupts, they must commit to a timelined plan to prevent events taking on a life of their own.
This is indeed an order as tall as the Minar-e-Pakistan which another vintage of BJP PM had the foresight and vision to visit. It is time another, more empowered BJP PM looked to history.
For Pakistan’s Sharif, his parliamentary numbers also mandates him to lead history at home. It’s true, the military’s worries can’t be wished away. They need to be dealt with, not ignored. Moving away from Siachin and Kargil mindsets in both countries won’t be easy. But big crowns come stuffed with thorns, as we all know. Even the smallest ambition for peace between India and Pakistan needs statesmanship and roadblock-mitigation. Hope is not a plan, no matter how audacious.