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India and Pakistan: Back to Square One?

Published on South Asia Monitor
August 24, 2014


Prime Minister Modi’s invitation to Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif along with leaders of SAARC nations to his oath-taking ceremony on May 26 this year infused enthusiasm and hope for the prospects of better India-Pakistan relations. This was followed by a ‘Sari-Shawl’ diplomacy and exchange of letters reassuring people of the sub-continent that dialogue would continue. Attempts for reconciliation on part of both Modi and Sharif had come in for much praise in both countries. People on both sides expressed hope for a paradigm shift in the course of ties. Despite his anti-Pakistan rhetoric during the election campaign and his evident hardline views, even critics of Narendra Modi heaped praise and termed his invite to Sharif as a bold initiative – a diplomatic master-step.

In this context the Indian government’s decision to cancel foreign secretary level talks with Pakistan to be held on August 25 is no good news. India is upset with the Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit holding consultations with separatist leaders of the Hurriyat faction. In a strong message to Pakistan, India has in categorical terms mentioned that dialogue can take place with either India or the separatist elements. India also clarified that it does not appreciate Pakistan’s repeated interference in an internal matter (namely Jammu & Kashmir). While the nationalist lobby in India has commended this decision, describing it as a strong and fitting response to incessant Pakistan backed terrorism; some have criticized it as a knee-jerk reaction which will only contribute to a setback in the peace process (An Inept Pakistan Policy, The Times of India – August 21).

The larger question however remains to be answered and that is – what would be the implications of this step on the long-term course of India-Pakistan relations? Also, does this in any way signal the beginning of a shift in India’s Pakistan policy? While India has never appreciated Pakistan’s engagement with Hurriyat leaders stressing on the bilateral resolution of outstanding disputes, this cancellation of talks is unprecedented. India has always been in knowledge of the proximity between the Pakistani leadership and the separatist leadership in Kashmir, though all it did was to express displeasure and disapproval of the meetings between the two. Even during the Agra summit in 2001, the Indian leadership was not quite happy with the then Pakistan president General Pervez Musharraf meeting Hurriyat leaders at the sidelines of the summit. However, this did not lead to a cancellation of the summit talks. Indian leaders right from Atal Bihari Vajpayee to Manmohan Singh who sought to engage with Pakistan were aware of its communications with separatists. Does this mean that a change in leadership (a supposedly aggressive and right-wing leadership) at the centre has made the difference to India’s response?

Even before he assumed power, Narendra Modi was not viewed very positively in the context of India-Pakistan relations. His anti-minority and hardline Hindu views came in for some strong criticism in Pakistan’s media discourse which had foreseen his rise to power within the fold of the BJP. An anti-Modi resolution was brought by the opposition parties in Pakistan but was eventually blocked. While Pakistan has termed the cancellation of talks as a setback to the process of normalization; among several quarters in India this is being seen as a much needed aggressive and nationalistic transformation of India’s ‘soft’ and vulnerable foreign policy posture. Hawks have always lamented India’s weak response to Pakistani overtures and in this breakdown of talks they see a vindication of the purpose for which a nationalistic and hardline BJP led government was voted to power.

The Modi-Sharif bonhomie was viewed with great expectations from both sides owing to the fact that both leaders depicted great interest in economic revival and cooperation and possess a soft corner towards shared economic benefits. It was believed that their economy-driven approach would act as a major boost in the strengthening of relations. Notably, post the Mumbai terror attacks, the peace process was in a deep freeze and with Modi’s invitation to Sharif worked to ignite hope and thaw in a gloomy scenario. The cancellation of talks only reinforces that when it comes to the issue of Jammu and Kashmir; both sides like to remain rigid in their positions refusing to budge even an inch. No matter who is in power, the dichotomy of opinions on Kashmir is reiterated as India terms in an internal matter while Pakistan sticks to its position of Kashmir being a dispute.

Pakistan’s present internal strife and the weakening legitimacy of the Nawaz Sharif government have only added to an already despondent scenario in the relationship. One may recall the pressure that was exerted on Sharif by the Pakistan army and fundamentalist block as he contemplated accepting Modi’s invitation to the swearing in ceremony. It is only evident that in the case of talks between India and Pakistan, apart from the leadership many extraneous forces will also come into play. Though high expectations were pinned on the present leadership for an improvement in relations, the present scenario comes out as bleak. Still one cannot rule out any dramatic development in the course of relations as the two countries have always swung from extreme hope and optimism to a phase of lull. The implications of the breakdown of talks will definitely be far-reaching as India and Pakistan would now look to starting from the scratch. It would be interesting to observe the shape that India’s Pakistan policy takes in the times to come and the Pakistani response to it in wake of its own political, economic and democratic challenges. 

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