‘Terror and talks cannot go together’

At the start of the Narendra Modi era, diplomacy rather than domestic affairs held sway, although late in the evening something important was done on the domestic front too. Modi’s compact council of ministers — totalling 45 as against 74 that constituted the ousted government — was sworn in late in the evening on Monday 26 May. The following day, his first working day, most of his time and energy were devoted to ‘summit’ diplomacy. This was the result of his own sudden initiative to invite the heads of state or government of all the members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) plus Mauritius to his government’s inauguration.

His original idea was to reach out only to his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, and ask him to be by his side for the ‘celebration of Indian democracy’. But he knew that the best way to ensure this was to invite him together with others heading the governments in the region. Despite a number of difficulties, including differences between Mr Sharif and the Pakistan Army and an attack on the Indian consulate at Herat in Afghanistan, Mr Sharif decided to come. His brother and governor of Pakistani Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif, had taken care to get the agreement of the Army Chief, General Raheel Sharif. Prime Minister Sharif’s daughter Maryam encouraged him to go to Delhi while he eldest son, Hussain, accompanied him on the two-day visit.

It is perhaps needless to add that although eight heads of government were in Delhi and were treated with equal respect, not only the Indian and foreign media but also the people in general were all fixated on Mr Sharif. Before leaving for home, he expressed satisfaction with the ‘cordial and constructive’ talks with Mr Modi and hoped that India felt the same. There was, of course, no breakthrough or even a notable advance in the relationship as a result of the talks between the two prime ministers. On the contrary, Mr Modi had underscored the salience of terrorism and stated that India-Pakistan relations could not improve until terrorism from Pakistan’s territory and the territory under its control was ended, and masterminds of the savage terrorist attack on Mumbai on November 26, 2008 were properly punished. For the benefit of his honoured guest, Mr Modi repeated privately what he had often said publicly: ‘Terror and talks cannot go together.’

The Indian side also demanded that Pakistan should cease sheltering India’s most wanted Mafia don Dawood Ibrahim, who was also responsible for the massacre during the serial blasts in Mumbai in March 1993. When, during the recent election campaign, Mr Modi had raised this demand, Pakistan’s interior minister had rebuked him rudely.

Remarkably, Mr Sharif evaded all these issues, made a brief reference to the ‘core issue’ of Kashmir and yet expressed satisfaction that the ‘ice had been broken’ and the roadmap for further talks would be prepared by the foreign secretaries of the two countries. India broadly agreed but there was a significant difference of nuance in the statements of the two sides. Mr Sharif, who delayed his meeting with the media until after the Indian foreign secretary Sujatha Singh’s televised press briefing, said categorically that the two foreign secretaries would ‘meet soon’. Ms Singh declared, on the other hand, that the heads of the two foreign offices would be ‘in touch’. There was, however, no bad blood on either side. By the time of the nightly TV talk shows, commentators on both sides were saying the meeting between the two prime ministers was ‘more symbolic than substantive’.

Even so, both sides seemed agreed that some ‘low-hanging fruits’ could perhaps be reaped. For instance, the 2012 agreement on resumption of ‘full trade’ could be implemented without further delay, especially because Pakistan badly needs Indian electricity that this country is willing to provide. Similarly, people-to-people contact would greatly improve if the agreed arrangement for liberalising the visa system were to be enforced soon enough. In order to do that, Mr Sharif would have to overcome the opposition of the Army and the jihadis, who are holding the Pakistani state and society to ransom. This is something that the eminent Pakistani commentator Khaled Ahmed has been writing for some time. A day before the Modi-Sharif talks, Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States, predicted that this new effort would go the way of all previous summit meetings.

Next to Mr Sharif, the foreign dignitary that attracted great attention was President Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka. Because of the denial of legitimate rights to Lanka’s Tamil minority even after the end of the ethnic civil war, there was strong opposition in the state of Tamil Nadu to the invitation extended to him. Even Mr Modi’s Tamil allies staged black flag demonstrations against the Sri Lankan president. In their official talks, Mr Modi told Mr Rajapaksa to lose no further time in implementing the long-delayed 13th amendment to the Lankan constitution, which provides for devolution of powers to the Tamil minority.

Because of Indian concerns about the consequences of the withdrawal of US and NATO troops from war-ravaged Afghanistan at the end of the year, President Hamid Karzai was also much sought after. He endeared himself to many Indians by telling an Indian TV channel that the recent dastardly attack on the Indian consulate at Herat on the Afghan-Iran border was the handiwork of Pakistan-backed Taliban. His talks with Mr Modi were also substantial. Mr Karzai was happy to get the assurance that India would continue to take part in the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan and give it the assistance it needs. Afghanistan’s sovereignty must be upheld and all future developments there should be Afghan-controlled.

Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, could not come because she was already on a pre-scheduled visit to Japan. So she sent the speaker of her country’s parliament with a message that Mr Modi must visit Dhaka at the earliest possible opportunity. For his part, Mr Modi told his Nepali opposite number that he would like to visit the northern neighbour.

Many world leaders, including President Obama, have rung Mr Modi to congratulate him and to extend invitations to him. But no one has done so more warmly than Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, who is keen to strengthen his country’s economic and geo-strategic relationship with India — understandable in view of Japan’s difficulties in the South and East China Sea. It is all the more interesting therefore that even China seems enthusiastic about the new Indian prime minister. One reason for this may be that, as chief minister of Gujarat for over a decade, Mr Modi travelled to the two East Asian powers and Singapore to attract investment in his state.

— Inder Malhotra