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An Unmissable Opportunity: The Time for Modi and Islamabad leadership to Resume Bilateral Dialogue is Now!

By Sudheendra Kulkarni

June 13, 2024 04:23 PM

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Opportunities to break a deadlock in the relations between India and Pakistan do not come often. We are two estranged brothers who seem incapable of finding a way to reach the point of rapprochement. For such has been the complex nature of the dispute that has kept us apart almost since the time Pakistan was created as a separate nation in 1947. But when opportunities for a breakthrough do arrive, it would be stupid ─ indeed, criminal ─ to miss them.

The governments of our two countries have indeed missed many such opportunities in the past seventy-seven years. But now that history has offered yet another chance, in the form of a new and favourable situation created by the elections in both countries, New Delhi and Islamabad (together with the powers that be in Rawalpindi) must seize it with commitment, courage, and a sense of urgency and responsibility.

Narendra Modi is back in power as India’s prime minister for the third consecutive term after the recently concluded parliamentary elections. His party’s majority is considerably reduced in Parliament, and he now has to depend on the support of a few allies to run a coalition government. However, this does not constrain his ability in foreign policy, especially if he shows determination to reset India’s relations with Pakistan.

Similarly, Pakistan also has a new coalition government, headed by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, following the February elections. Sharif and his elder brother and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif favour friendly and cooperative relations with India. Furthermore, support for better relations with South Asia’s largest country and soon-to-be the world’s third-largest economy now extends to all sections of the political spectrum in Pakistan.

A much stronger source of support now comes from the military establishment, which remains the main centre of power in the country. In the past several years, the establishment has sent sufficient indications that it, too, seeks good-neighbourly relations with India.

Modi ought to have invited Shehbaz Sharif or President Asif Ali Zardari for his swearing-in on June 9, in the same way, he had invited the heads of state and governments of several neighbouring South Asian countries. He has weakened his own priority for “Neighbourhood First” in India’s foreign policy by excluding Pakistan. Ten years ago, when Modi became prime minister for the first time, he had invited Pakistan’s then-Premier Nawaz Sharif for his swearing-in ceremony, which the latter had accepted despite some resistance from the military establishment in Rawalpindi.

This time, the internal power dynamics in Pakistan are probably different. Therefore, Shehbaz Sharif or Zardari would have come to New Delhi without any problems if Modi had extended an invitation. That would have demonstrated willingness on both sides to bring the bilateral ties on the right track.

A ray of hope: Shehbaz-Nawaz tweets and Modi’s response

Nevertheless, a small hint that ice may begin to be broken came when the Pakistani prime minister tweeted congratulating Modi on his re-election, and Modi thanked him for this gracious gesture. More significantly, Nawaz Sharif, who still wields considerable power as the leader of PML-N (the party that heads his brother’s coalition government), tweeted with effusive congratulations. He said, “Your party’s success in recent elections reflects the confidence of the people in your leadership. Let us replace hate with hope and seize the opportunity to shape the destiny of the two billion people of South Asia.”

Modi responded: “Appreciate your message @NawazSharifMNS. The people of India have always stood for peace, security and progressive ideas. Advancing the well-being and security of our people shall always remain our priority.” Modi should have been statesmanlike by mentioning that the “well-being and security” of not only “our people” (Indians) but also of all the people of South Asia “shall always remain our priority.”

They may also wonder whether he can take a daring initiative in this direction since his party no longer commands a parliamentary majority and has to depend on the support of two allies for survival. To address these doubts, it is necessary to recall a few facts.

Indo-Pak peace is the greatest legacy Modi can leave behind in his third (and last) term in office

This is most certainly going to be Modi’s last term in office. What legacy will he leave behind? True, after becoming a three-term prime minister of the world’s largest democracy, he has equaled the record of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Nehru is remembered ─ indeed, widely respected ─ for having laid a robust foundation of democracy in a newly liberated country of unparalleled diversity. Indira Gandhi played a key role in changing the map of South Asia by helping the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971.

But which achievement will history remember Modi by? The answer to this question will not be flattering to him. His last ten years in office reveal a big gap between propaganda and performance. His government managed to control the media with a vice-like grip and turned it into a machine that worked non-stop for Modi’s self-aggrandizement. But what are his enduring and history-creating successes of governance that would stand the scrutiny of time? Almost none.

He cannot take credit for the construction of Ram Temple in Ayodhya, much as he and his supporters might want to do so. After all, the construction was facilitated by a verdict of the Supreme Court of India. (The temple Modi was inaugurated with great fanfare in February of this year and has been built at a site where the Babri Masjid once stood. Hindus believe it to be the birthplace of Ram. The masjid was demolished by an unruly mob of Hindutva supporters on 6 December 1992.) Ironically, a candidate of Modi’s party lost the election in the Ayodhya constituency to a rival who had the backing of Hindus and Muslims alike.

The second major event in the past ten years was the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which gave the state of Jammu & Kashmir a special status. The BJP would like to project this as Modi’s great achievement by claiming that this decision fully integrated Jammu & Kashmir into the Indian nation. However, normalcy has not completely returned to Jammu & Kashmir five years after the nullification of Article 370.

Similarly, Modi cannot project “demonetization” as an achievement that future Indians will remember him by. His sudden decision in November 2016 to render old high-value currency notes worthless and replace them with a new set of notes created enormous hardships for common Indians. True, the digital economy has made huge strides in Modi’s rule. However, his bold action’s declared objective- reducing unaccounted money in the economy ─ has not been met since the total quantum of cash in circulation now exceeds the pre-2016 levels. Neither Modi nor his party mentions “demonetization” as his historic and proud achievement.

This being the case, the question still remains: What will be Modi’s legacy after he completes three terms in office? Improving India-Pakistan relations on a durable basis can be his legacy if ─ and it remains a “Big If” ─ he decides to make this his foreign policy priority.

Modi’s allies, Chandrababu Naidu and Nitish Kumar, will back an initiative for peace with Pakistan

People and the ruling circles in Pakistan should know that Modi will not encounter any opposition from within his coalition if he decides to make concerted efforts in this direction. His two crucial allies ─ Chandrababu Naidu and Nitish Kumar, chief ministers of the southern state of Andhra Pradesh and the northern state of Bihar, respectively ─ will support him enthusiastically. Nitish Kumar has been an ardent believer in improving India’s relations with Pakistan.

This conviction was strengthened after he visited Pakistan in November 2012, which he described as “memorable and successful.”  Upon his return, he strongly advocated promoting trade ties with Pakistan and ensuring regional peace. Indeed, he endeared himself to the people of Pakistan by wearing the Sindhi cap and `ajrak’ (traditional Sindhi shawl), which was presented to him by Sindh’s then Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah.

Another fact to be noted: both Nitish Kumar and Naidu believe in “secularism” ─ the principle of non-discrimination on religious grounds, which is a pillar of the Indian Constitution ─ and enjoy huge support among Indian Muslims. The front-page headline in Dawn newspaper after election results were declared on June 4 summed it up well. It said: “India defeats hate, Modi left at mercy of Muslim-friendly allies.” Modi and his party made every possible effort to incite anti-Muslim hatred among Hindu voters.

They even dragged Pakistan into their election campaign by saying that Pakistanis would be happy if the Congress party, the main opponent of the BJP, won the elections. Hindu voters largely rebuffed their divisive tactics, especially in the two large states of Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra. Therefore, now that the elections are over, Modi will have no incentive to play the anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan card. Indeed, he would surely lose the support of his allies if he did so, thus endangering his government’s survival.

All these factors have created an objective condition conducive to the resumption of long-deadlocked dialogue between India and Pakistan.

India and Pakistan should become partners in fighting terrorism and religious extremism

How can we open this door of opportunity? How can we also ensure that the door does not get shut soon after opening, as has unfortunately happened so often? Here are five ideas on what India and Pakistan need to do.

First, India should give up its insistent but unhelpful stand that “Terror and Talks cannot go together.” This does not mean India should abandon or weaken its fight against terror, which, truth be told, often has had its origin across the border. Rather, India should understand that its stand has been unhelpful as it has created a prolonged deadlock in India-Pakistan relations. It has neither created conditions for the complete stoppage of terrorist acts nor led to the complete dismantling of the infrastructure of terror. This objective can best be achieved in partnership with Pakistan rather than by trying to isolate and malign it in the international community. Furthermore, such a partnership is possible because Pakistan itself has been a major victim of terrorism and religious extremism, which it thoughtlessly and myopically promoted in the recent past.

The need for an India-Pakistan partnership in waging a joint battle against the scourge of terrorism, which is a threat to humanity itself, was recognized by both Modi and Nawaz Sharif. The joint statement was issued after the talks between the two prime ministers on the sidelines of the SCO summit in Ufa, Russia, in July 2015.

This shows Modi’s acceptance of the stark truth that elimination of the menace of terrorism from South Asia (meaning from India as well as Pakistan) requires New Delhi’s cooperation with Islamabad-Rawalpindi. Why should the Indian prime minister turn his back on this truth now? Indeed, if both India and Pakistan sincerely build and expand cooperation in this task ─ and not give it up if non-state actors indulge in some provocative acts of violence ─ they will greatly weaken anti-India (which are also anti-Pakistan) forces of terror.

Second, a call for India to abjure its rigid “Terror and Talks cannot go together” stand also means a call for Pakistan to end, once and for all, its support to the dark forces of religious extremism, which fuels terrorism. Pakistan has paid an extremely heavy price because of its ill-conceived policy. Its global image has suffered greatly. Even within the community of Muslim countries, India today has more and closer friendships and partnerships than Pakistan. This is evident from the growing warmth and depth in the relations between India and the major powers in West Asia ─ especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, where support for religious extremism is now zero.

Surely, this calls for introspection and course correction among decision-makers in Pakistan.

If India and China can have a booming bilateral trade, why not India and Pakistan?

Third, One of the surest ways to build mutual trust and achieve win-win benefits in prosperity and progress is by opening the closed doors of trade, business, and economic cooperation. The fact that we are neighbors with large populations ─ India is now the world’s most populous nation, and Pakistan ranks number five ─ creates potentially vast avenues for cooperation.

According to one estimate, there is a nearly $20 billion bilateral trade opportunity if only we remove artificial barriers to trade, business, and investments. Sadly, the current level of direct bilateral trade is less than $ 1 billion, although indirect trade through Dubai and other channels is much higher. After all, if India and China can have a $120 billion bilateral trade despite strained political relations, why should India and Pakistan keep all doors shut for two-way trade and economic cooperation?

Pakistan should realize that India is a technology powerhouse today. Those few Pakistanis who have visited Bangalore, Mumbai, Pune, Hyderabad, Delhi, Gurgaon, Noida, Chennai, and Ahmedabad in recent years ─ sadly, the number of such visitors is very small ─ know this truth very well.  Our manufacturing base in several industries is world-class in quality and cost competitiveness. Some of India’s business houses ─ Tata, Reliance, Adani and others ─ are among the largest in the world, with both the money power and readiness to invest in Pakistan if conditions permit. Such joint ventures will gradually strengthen Pakistan’s big business houses and small and medium enterprises.

Let’s not forget two other strategic benefits the India-Pakistan rapprochement can bring. If our two countries open up the border for trade, this linkage can logically be extended to the entire India-Pakistan-Afghanistan-Central Asia route on the western side and the Afghanistan-Pakistan-India-Bangladesh-South East Asia route on the eastern side. This will help integrate the economies of all South Asian countries and beyond. The centre of gravity of growth, prosperity, and progress will shift from Europe and North America to South Asia in the coming decades of the 21st century. Should we not work together to realize this world-changing dream?

But there is another world-changing possibility in such cooperation. It will reduce Pakistan’s excessive dependence on China, which is surely not in the best long-term interests of Pakistanis.  Indeed, Pakistan can be friendly towards both India and China simultaneously. This will also help India and China improve their bilateral relations. Hence, this three-way cooperation among India, Pakistan, and China can potentially change the destiny of entire South Asia, making it a zone of peace, prosperity, and progress for all its nearly two billion denizens.

Don’t lose a single in promoting people-to-people contacts in huge numbers… and at all levels

Fourth: Our two countries should not lose a single day in facilitating people-to-people contacts in a big way. What a shame it is that our two governments have made it extremely difficult ─ indeed, impossible ─ for people to get visas to visit each other’s country. Even Indian artists and writers cannot travel to Pakistan, and vice versa. There are also no direct Delhi-Islamabad and Mumbai-Karachi flights anymore. It’s as if we have erected a long Berlin Wall separating our two peoples, who are otherwise connected by thousands of ties of religion, ethnicity, language, culture, and history.

However, the scope and need for people-to-people exchanges is immense. India has some of the best institutions in higher education. Pakistan, too, has some excellent institutions. Bright Pakistani students can, therefore, come to study in India in large numbers ─ and vice versa. India also has many world-class hospitals, which can provide medical care to Pakistanis at a much lower cost than if they went to London or New York.

Then, there is the urgent need to promote religious tourism. Why should Pakistani Muslims be prevented from coming to many revered Sufi shrines in India ─ and vice versa? Why shouldn’t large numbers of Hindus in India have opportunities to visit places of pilgrimage in Pakistan, such as the Katas Raj temple near Lahore and the Hinglaj Mata Temple in Balochistan? The government of Pakistan deserves compliments for renovating the Kartarpur Sahib Gurdwara complex grandly and aesthetically.

The Kartarpur Sahib Corridor has enabled Sikhs from India to travel to this sacred shrine. On similar lines, should India and Pakistan not cooperate to create a Sharada Peeth Corridor across the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir? This will help in the renovation of an ancient Hindu temple and create enormous goodwill for Pakistan among Hindus in all parts of India and the world.

Modi should invite Pakistan’s COAS and PM for a lasting solution to the Kashmir issue

Fifth, and lastly: What should be done with the Kashmir issue, the knottiest problem that has bedevilled India-Pakistan relations? The truth is that history itself has rendered many traditional claims of the ruling establishments of our two countries irrelevant. Pakistan can never capture the Indian side of Kashmir, nor can India ever succeed in taking the Pakistani side of Kashmir. The prospects of the two sides of Kashmir uniting and becoming independent are nil. Any coercive attempt by either side to alter this reality will trigger yet another war, which could potentially become a nuclear conflict.

Neither side can win the war, but both sides will suffer destruction on an unimaginable scale. In short, history is shouting its lesson in the ears of the leaders and peoples of India and Pakistan: “Goli nahin, boli” (No to war, Yes to peace through dialogue). The dialogue can yield the desired results if both sides respect each other as equal sovereign nations that do not harbour overt or hidden ill intentions toward one another.

If this is the unalterable ground reality, the only workable solution is a variant of the “Four-Point Formula” mooted by Gen Pervez Musharraf and broadly supported by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Dr Manmohan Singh. Modi and his counterparts in the civilian and military establishments in Pakistan have no option but to return to discussing the “Four-Point Formula” (with some mutually acceptable modifications) if they are at all serious about discussing and finding a lasting solution to the Kashmir issue.

To a limited extent, both countries have shown sincerity and commitment by adhering to the Ceasefire Agreement announced on 25 February 2021. The prolonged ceasefire along the LoC has indeed brought benefits to both sides. Thousands of lives of soldiers and civilians, Indian as well as Pakistani, have been saved. The credit for this sagacious agreement should go to Ajit Doval, India’s National Security Advisor, and his counterparts in Rawalpindi.

This shows that Modi should not hesitate to open a direct and publicized communication channel with the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi. After all, if the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, can welcome Chief of Army Staff General Asim Munir and Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif in Beijing (June 2024), why should Modi not extend a similar invitation to Pakistan’s COAS?

Modi ji, visit Pakistan for the SAARC Summit in 2024

So, where should Modi and Shehbaz Sharif (backed fully by the military establishment) begin? An excellent opportunity for the resumption of bilateral dialogue will open up if Modi announces his willingness to visit Pakistan to participate in the long-stalled SAARC Summit in 2024. (The last SAARC summit was hosted by Nepal in 2014.) Let us revisit the aforementioned India-Pakistan joint statement issued in Ufa in 2015. It said: “Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif reiterated his invitation to Prime Minister Modi to visit Pakistan for the SAARC Summit in 2016. Prime Minister Modi accepted the invitation.” 

The real question is: Will Modi think big and become bold in his third (and last) term in office by attempting to normalize relations with Pakistan? The other equally important side of the same question is this: Will Pakistan’s civilian-military leadership show the wisdom, guided by their own country’s self-interest, to respond to Modi’s initiative in a trustworthy manner?

Let’s hope and pray that God Almighty shows the right path to the two brother-nations, which are estranged by the past but can embrace in permanent dosti in the near future.

–Courtesy Strathea

Sudheendra Kulkarni

The writer lived in Mumbai and was a close aide to India’s former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. A frequent traveller to Pakistan and China, he is a well-known votary of India-Pakistan-China cooperation for creating a New South Asia. He welcomes comments at [email protected]

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