The cancellation of foreign secretary level talks between India and Pakistan, which were to be held on August 25, was not totally unexpected.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has so far refrained from making belligerent statements against Pakistan, except during his visit to Kargil last week, where he stated that Pakistan has lost the capacity to fight a conventional war against India, and is thus indulging in a ‘proxy war.’ The Prime Minister, who was quite aggressive during the election campaign, has perhaps realized that diplomacy especially with regard to neighboring countries is complex – and that New Delhi-Islamabad relations are perhaps the most complicated. Events of the last few days which include continuous ceasefire violations across the LoC and the meeting between the Pakistan High Commissioner and Kashmiri separatist leaders had put the Prime Minister in a tight spot with the Congress accusing him of being weak. The Indian side objected to the meeting between the Pakistan High Commissioner in India, Abdul Basit and separatist leaders Syed Ali Shah Geelani, and senior separatist leader Shabir Ahmad Shah, with the Indian Foreign Secretary categorically stating that Pakistan had a choice of either talking to the separatist leaders or to India.
The Prime Minister – who has to deal with multiple domestic problems – has given clear indications of wanting to reach out to neighbours as was evident from the invitation to leaders of SAARC countries for his swearing-in. This was followed up by visits to both Bhutan and Nepal which have been welcomed by both his admirers and critics as laudable initiatives.
Modi would like to reach out to whatever degree possible to the civilian government of Nawaz Sharif, which won a decisive mandate in 2013. Sharif during the election campaign had repeatedly reiterated his desire to improve ties with India and to begin from where he had left in 1999. Yet, the PML-N government has so far been giving very confusing signals. For example, it has put Non-Discriminatory Market Access (NDMA) status on the backburner, something which was expected considering Sharif’s desire for closer India-Pakistan trade ties. First NDMA was delayed due to elections in Pakistan last year, and then it was put on hold due to the elections in India. Ceasefire violations too have increased since last year. In January 2013, two Indian soldiers were killed and their bodies were mutilated, and the media and opposition attacked the then-Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh for being soft on Pakistan. On the eve of the meeting between Singh and Sharif on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in September last year, there was a terrorist attack in Jammu. Over the past week too there have been a large number of ceasefire violations, but there has been no real reaction by Modi.
Sharif himself has been making the right moves and noises. In spite of opposition from the Pakistan army he attended Narendra Modi’s swearing-in and did not meet any of the Kashmiri separatist leaders. Only last week he also made a mention of how Pakistan too has suffered as a result of strained ties with India. The Pakistani Prime Minister will have to bite the bullet, however, and convert his intentions into something tangible. The first step could be to restore the ceasefire. If a ceasefire cannot be maintained, it is tough to really sit across the table and talk about other issues because it implies that Sharif has no control of the situation. In addition to this, the Pakistani Prime Minister should make a categorical statement that Pakistani soil will not be utilized for any terrorist activities against India. Third, the Kashmir issue can be discussed, but it should not be used as a means of leverage or justifying violence. Finally, if Pakistan is interested in trade it should deal with the hardliners and grant NDMA.
New Delhi on its part should be firm, but not brash. Unnecessary belligerence will only strengthen the GHQ and hardliners within the Pakistani establishment. The best at this stage would be to watch and wait for the civilian government to deal with not just the army, but opposition parties trying to dislodge the government.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, Sonepat.
Image: Tauseef Mustafa-AFP, Getty