Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi surprised everyone by paying a short visit to his Pakistani counterpart on his birthday on December 25. This was the first visit of an Indian premier to Pakistan in 12 years and has raised high hopes for peace on both sides.
But lest we get carried away, let’s do a reality check.
The optics of the two prime ministers warmly hugging each other and later holding hands at the airport ceremonies created an extraordinary feel-good moment, but will this warmth be enough to thaw the ties frozen in time? Due to centuries of shared history, Indians and Pakistanis have always felt some affinity in manners and social protocol. So when they meet, leaders and ordinary people alike, there is enough willing suspension of disbelief to set aside for a fleeting moment what divides them and let the feelings of closeness take over. But this tenuous cultural identity has never been enough to override their differences as nations. For that you need much more than emotion of the moment.
If history is any guide, similar feelings were created when former Indian prime pinister Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited Lahore on Dosti Bus in 1999, Pakistan’s General Musharraf visited Agra in 2001 or Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visited Delhi in 2014 to attend the swearing in of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But the initial excitement proved so effervescent as entrenched strategic positions soon reared their heads once the dialogue started in earnest.
It has already happened with Prime Minister Modi once. After generating hopes for peace with the invitation to his swearing in Modi turned unexpectedly to a hard line approach towards Pakistan not missing any opportunity to claim that Pakistan promoted terrorism and was a nuisance for India. Tensions along the Line of Control and Working Boundary in the disputed territory of Kashmir went up even further.
Pakistan responded to India’s hard line by upping the ante. It availed of every opportunity to highlight Kashmir and claimed to have credible evidence that India was involved in terrorist activities on its soil and let it know it had developed tactical nuclear weapons to counter any Indian attack. During their respective visits to Washington earlier this year, both Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Army Chief General Raheel Sharif expressed their concern about India’s aggressive posturing and Pakistan’s inability to devote full attention to Afghanistan’s stability in the face of this threat.
Washington had to do something as it felt that India-Pakistan tensions were giving Pakistan an alibi not be fully cooperative in the Afghanistan war. So Washington certainly played a role in getting the India-Pakistan dialogue started. But that was not the only stimulus. Modi’s image in the United States, about which he is so concerned, was being tarnished by the growing incidence of intolerance in India attributed to the rise of Hindu nationalism. And in the light of his silence over this, his own intransigence was beginning to look like hostility towards Pakistan. So he had to change his stance. This was good diplomacy. Now that the dialogue will resume, he may have a chance to shift the blame for any lack of progress on Pakistan’s hard line.
But the question still remains: what will come of the talks? The two countries have conflicting expectations of each other and different priorities. Pakistan has long argued that the Kashmir dispute be resolved first, or at least in conjunction with other areas of mutual concern. Regardless of who is in power, India has been and will remain unwilling to offer to Pakistan any concessions on Kashmir, even if it means foregoing the economic dividends of trade with Pakistan and transit trade through Pakistan to Afghanistan and Central Asia. India instead has remained focused on terrorism, especially since 2008 Mumbai attack which it blamed on Pakistan-based banned outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba.
But Pakistan is unwilling to do anything more than it has already done to allay Indian concerns about terrorism by non-state actors. Pakistan has undertaken security operations against terrorists of all hues under the National Action Plan (NAP) which was devised after the terrorist attack on Army Public School in Peshawar in December 2014, which killed 150 including more than 120 children. Although much more work still needs to be done to curb terrorist financing, registration of seminaries and overhauling of school curricula, progress on NAP indicates a serious commitment to tackle a threat that has harmed Pakistan more than anyone else. But Pakistan lacks the political will and the capacity to go after its erstwhile surrogates like LeT. The backlash will be too risky. In addition, Islamabad has its own concerns about India stoking instability within Pakistan and would like to treat this subject in a linked manner in dialogue with India.
Has the Pakistani military been on board so far with this bear hug diplomacy? Of course. The military is not opposed to talks. But that is not the end of the story. Their role really comes into play when the talks get underway. That is when they will show their hand. This then raises the question if Nawaz Sharif is in a position to give concessions to Modi. He could not give them to President Ghani of Afghanistan. In case of Ghani, of course, the problem is more complicated. There is no unified position within the unity government in Kabul. So both were not good interlocutors for each other. Can Modi and Nawaz Sharif be good interlocutors? We will have to see. Familiar obstacles to progress remain.
Yet something is indeed different this time: China. Would the massive Chinese investment in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, linking Pakistan’s Gwader Port to China’s Xinjiang province make China a stake holder in India Pakistan peace? The corridor is part of the larger Chinese plans to stabilize the region on its periphery and to this end is expected to open avenues of regional trade. But can it realize its potential without peace in the region? And will the United States for its own reasons continues to nudge Pakistan and India towards peace, for the sake of Afghanistan’s success if nothing else? Maybe this is what Ghani told Modi when he visited him before coming to Lahore. And this is what the businessmen friends of the two Prime Ministers who are eying the economic prospects in a peaceful and stable Afghanistan are telling them.
In the ultimate analysis, much would depend on whether the two leaders will be able to show not only bold and imaginative leadership but also policies that change destinies of their peoples. Anything less will be the continuation of the same old story.
Drama is good to set the stage for talks. But however exciting and auspicious this start is, this is no indication of how it will all end. This is very much just another in a series of beginnings for India and Pakistan, though as far as beginnings go, it was a good one.
Touqir Hussain, a former Ambassador and Diplomatic Adviser to the Prime Minister of Pakistan, is Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University and SAIS Johns Hopkins University, where he is also Senior Pakistan Visiting Fellow. Ishrat Saleem is a journalist based in Islamabad.