"Expect the low-hanging fruit. The agreements are already in place, they will be implemented. There will be confidence building measures"- Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri, former foreign minister of Pakistan
"The most critical element will be those on both sides who want to break up the normalisation process; this has happened several times before" - Stephen Cohen, senior fellow, Brookings Institution
Even the weather played its part. By Moscow standards, it was a warm night on December 24—the temperature was just a notch above zero degree Celsius, although the rest of the week was markedly colder—when Prime Minister Narendra Modi boarded his flight to Kabul, after winding up his two-day visit to Russia. His entourage had thinned by then, after some people who accompanied him were sent on another plane to Delhi. Four hours and 59 minutes later, Modi would land in Kabul to deliver Afghanistan its new parliament building. And a few hours later, he did the unthinkable, touching down in Lahore on an unscheduled visit and sharing a warm hug with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Modi's visit must have been a surprise for Sharif, but it certainly was not a shock to him.
Feelers had been sent from both sides for a possible “surprise” visit. It may have been spontaneous and impromptu, but it was not unscripted. In the world of diplomacy, nothing is left to chance, especially in a delicate relationship like India and Pakistan. The Russians reportedly nudged India to “engage’’ with Pakistan as they were worried about the possible fallout of the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. It is no coincidence that the helicopters on the wish-list the Afghans gave India were as Russian as vodka.
“It is no accident,’’ former Pakistan foreign minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri told THE WEEK. “There is some method to the madness.” The thaw had started a while ago. The UN climate summit in Paris, where the two PMs shook hands in front of the whole world, may have started a buzz, but even before that, there were indications that a reconciliation was in the making.
So, when Modi called Sharif to wish him well on his birthday on December 25, opportunity presented itself. The timing could not have been more perfect. Thanking him, Sharif mentioned that he was in Lahore. Modi reportedly asked him why, and Sharif said his granddaughter Mehrunnisa was getting married. “I have got the invite and I will greet you in person,’’ Modi reportedly told him.
After he hung up, it was left to the Special Protection Group to finalise the details. The idea of an Indian prime minister touching down on Pakistani soil without any prior arrangements was unprecedented and dangerous. To assuage security concerns, Pakistan proposed that Sharif would travel in a chopper with Modi from the airport to the Sharif residence in Raiwind, on the outskirts of the city. “Their PM would guarantee the security of ours,’’ said PMO sources.
It was only then that the rest of the team on the plane was apprised of the development. It was a surprise even for the spokesperson of the ministry of external affairs, Vikas Swarup. “Are you kidding,” he reportedly asked, on being briefed by the PM's private secretary. He was assured that it was not a joke. And, moments later, Modi became the first Indian to get a Pakistani visa on arrival.
Getting off the plane in a kurta pyjama and an orange waistcoat, Modi hugged Sharif. His gesture of meeting Modi at the tarmac was as much a guarantee as it was symbolic. “I am personally touched by Nawaz Sharif sahib’s gesture of welcoming me at Lahore airport,” tweeted Modi.
The warmth seemed genuine as the two had met five times before. Despite the hard stance taken by them in the past, the duo certainly share a chemistry. It was quite an intimate meeting. “Even the national security adviser and the foreign secretary did not speak much. It was just the two leaders,’’ said an official.
Sitting across from Modi, Sharif opened the conversation by saying that he had always been supportive of the peace process. “It has been my calling card,’’ he said. Modi replied that it was important for peace to happen. The conversation was pleasant and while the nitty-gritty of the issues was not discussed, it set the tone for the foreign secretary-level meeting.
The invitation to Modi to visit Sharif's home, especially in the middle of the wedding preparations, was an indication that the visit went beyond business. Modi met Sharif's family, including his mother, for 15 minutes without even his closest aides.
The bonhomie between the two leaders has been growing for some time now. The first real conversation between them happened in Paris, said PMO sources. Modi reportedly told Sharif that it was time to talk. Sharif expressed his disappointment over the blocking of the NSA-level talks and asked what could be done. “If that is your worry, let’s do it,” Modi reportedly told him. The meeting of the NSAs in Bangkok was the result of this exchange. It was the first encounter between Ajit Doval and the new Pakistani NSA, Nasser Khan Janjua, a retired lieutenant general, who differed considerably with his predecessor Sartaj Aziz. It was followed by Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj's sudden visit to Pakistan to attend the Heart of Asia conference. The visas for the delegation accompanying her were processed late at night by the Pakistan High Commission. It was also the first time that Pakistan removed the blanket ban on Indian journalists from travelling across the border. Sushma's visit to Pakistan, where she spent time with the Sharif family, further warmed the relationship.
“The announcement of the meeting of the foreign secretaries was made on the midnight before Modi landed,’’ said Kasuri. “It is a sequence.” The inauguration of the much-delayed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline on December 13 by Vice President Hamid Ansari could be another significant factor. The $7.6-billion pipeline, to transport natural gas from Turkmenistan, could give a vital boost to energy-deficient India and Pakistan. It will bring together the neighbourhood in a tangible manner, ensuring 38 million standard cubic metres of gas each a day for India and Pakistan, while Afghanistan will get 14 million standard cubic metres.
Two days later, Modi indicated to his defence establishment that he wanted to talk to Pakistan. Addressing the combined commanders conference on board INS Vikramaditya off the Kochi coast, Modi outlined his plan for bringing peace to the region. “We are engaging Pakistan to try and turn the course of history, bring an end to terrorism, build peaceful relations, advance cooperation and promote stability and prosperity in our region,’’ he said.
The Congress may not be willing to jump on the peace wagon just as yet, but across the border, the Modi-Sharif meeting has been welcomed. Barring a few right-wing groups like the Jamaat-e-Islami, the Pakistani opposition groups and the civil society have welcomed the move. Even the military, believed to be the real power behind the throne in Pakistan, seems to be willing to give it a go. “The military doesn’t want a hot eastern border,’’ said Rana Banerji, former special secretary, cabinet secretariat. The most obvious indication to this was the way the visit was handled. The military would have been informed and it would have given a go-ahead as soon as the Indian Air Force plane carrying Modi entered the Pakistani airspace. “Raheel Sharif, the army chief, shares an equation with Nawaz Sharif. Before inviting Modi to his home, he would have checked with Raheel to see if it was okay,’’ said Banerji.
There are also indications that the time is ripe for fresh engagement. Modi's acerbic tongue and macho image, which bothered the Pakistanis to no end, have softened. The Pakistanis have also been worried that Sartaj Aziz, who was the NSA till recently, was no match for an “operational man like Doval.” Now, with a military man at the helm, the Pakistani leadership hopes that the negotiations would have a different tone and tenor.
Kasuri, who had chalked out the famous four points of peace for former president Pervez Musharraf, said the military seemed inclined towards peace. “War is not an option for nuclear states,” he said. Sharif is keen to leave a legacy behind. And, this time, he will be more careful. “He lost power last time when he met Atal Bihari Vajpayee in Lahore because he tried to rush the process without the consent of the army. He will not take that risk again,’’ said Banerji.
Following the theatrics, comes the difficult part. The talks between the foreign secretaries scheduled for January 15 will probably be the most hyped and breathlessly anticipated India-Pakistan conversation in a long time. “With the meeting in Lahore, the atmospherics have improved significantly. We are now looking forward to putting in place a comprehensive engagement mechanism that is irreversible and result oriented,’’ Pakistan's High Commissioner to India, Abdul Basit, told THE WEEK.
However, the problem is that there may not be a tangible result for a long time. On December 29, when Sartaj Aziz, who is now the Pakistan government's adviser on foreign affairs, spoke to the Pakistani Senate about the Modi-Sharif visit, he made it clear that expectations must not be unrealistic. He said the dialogue process was challenging and there would be progress in some issues while others would take time and involve difficult decisions.
The foreign secretaries are expected to prepare a schedule for the comprehensive dialogue. “Expect the low-hanging fruit,’’ said Kasuri. “The agreements are already in place, they will be implemented. There will be confidence building measures, like trade and people-to-people contact.”
Trade will probably be high on the agenda. The thrust of Modi’s foreign policy has been the bonds of business, rather than culture or strategic affairs. He is believed to have told Sharif, “If India can have trade relations with China even though we have differences, why can’t we engage in trade with you?’’ For Sharif, whose family has many business interests, this makes sense. One of the questions the Senate asked Aziz was whether trade links would be reopened.
Hours before he landed in Lahore, Modi had spoken about his economic dreams. He obliquely referred to a free trade zone while speaking at the new Afghan parliament building: “I hope that the day will come soon when energy from central Asia will power prosperity in our region; when a Kabuliwala can once again come across easily to win Indian hearts; when we in India can relish the wonderful fruits of Afghanistan; when Afghans do not have to pay an enormous price to buy their favourite products from India.”
Terrorism, the other T, may not be so easy to negotiate. The 26/11 trial will be a major obstacle. India wants a guarantee that the culprits will be punished and that there will be speedy justice. This was discussed when the two NSAs met in Bangkok. India had got an assurance that the trial would be speeded up. “India wants specific proof that the culprits will be convicted or charged. We will also want terror mastermind Zakiur Rehman Lakwi to be put behind bars,’’ said Banerji.
Kashmir could prove to be a deal-breaker once again. A senior Kashmiri separatist leader told THE WEEK that they had been told by Pakistan to allow the dialogue to gather some pace and not disrupt it unnecessarily. The Delhi round of the NSA-level talks collapsed after Pakistan insisted on meeting the separatist leaders in Delhi. However, according to sources, the stubbornness shown by the separatist leaders enraged many Pakistani leaders. ''After the talks collapsed, the separatist leaders received an earful from Pakistani diplomats,'' said a source. “You should have allowed to the talks to begin and not vitiate the atmosphere,'' the leaders were told. This was probably the reason why Modi's Lahore visit was welcomed by the Hurriyat leadership.
Radha Kumar, an interlocutor for Kashmir under the Manmohan Singh government, however, sees the talks as a good opportunity. “The fact that there is a momentum to it is a welcome move. One of the issues is that people believe that nothing will happen and no solution is possible. We have to change that,” said Kumar.
Also on the agenda are issues like Sir Creek, Siachen and the water-sharing agreements—none of them have easy solutions. And even if the talks progress, there are many “spoilers’’ that can ensure that, like Lahore and Agra, the talks could be derailed. India and Pakistan have gone down this path many times and failed.
Manmohan Singh wanted peace, but he failed to convince even his diplomatic corps. Can Modi tame the hardliners of the sangh parivar? The recent remark by senior BJP leader Ram Madhav about Akhand Bharat has already spooked Pakistan, although it was quickly retracted as a personal observation. “If Modi intervenes, people fall in line. We have seen a shift in India’s foreign policy. It is driven by Modi. He is moving away from person-to-person relations to one of nation-to-nation,’’ said Shamika Ravi, fellow at Brookings Institution, an influential American think tank.
For Sharif, it is important to keep the Pakistan army on the peace path. The backing of Pakistan army for the normalisation of relations with India could largely be the result of the security situation in Pakistan. It is leading a major operation against the Tehreek-e-Taliban militants along the Afghanistan border and can ill afford any flare-up on the Line of Control and the International Border with India. The situation in Balochistan, too, is tense.
However, while the army might be on board at the moment, it could change any time. “This is a long road, with many twists and turns,” said Stephen P. Cohen, senior fellow, Brookings Institution. “The most critical element will be those on both sides who want to break up the normalisation process; this has happened several times before,” he said. Modi and Sharif, therefore, have to keep the process sustained and carry it forward. The talks have to be meaningful, said Kasuri. “If it has no substance, they are bound to fail,’’ he said. Many other observers, too, tend to agree. Sumit Ganguly, who heads the Center on American and Global Security at Indiana University, said there was little or nothing in the public domain that would suggest that the Pakistan army was fully on board. “They may have given the nod to Sharif to proceed, but they will not merely keep a very watchful eye, but stand ready to quickly scuttle the talks if it does not proceed to their liking,” said Ganguly. He said the talks would have a better chance “if China and the US were to gently prod Islamabad.”
Modi has shown that he has the style and the capability for the dramatic gestures. He is believed to have told Sharif: “I have come empty handed, but I will send a gift.” Whether the gifts are of enduring substance is what remains to be seen.
WITH TARIQ BHAT AND AJISH P. JOY