Narendra Modi’s surprise visit to Lahore – the first by an Indian Prime Minister to that city since 1999 – should not be dismissed by skeptics as a personal gesture, a political gimmick or a ‘diplomatic non-sequitur’. Even if there is no concrete outcome, his decision to “drop by” and greet Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on his birthday has huge value in the signals it sends to hawkish constituencies in both India and Pakistan. Equally, it also sends signals down the line to the Indian military and civilian bureaucracies that the NDA government’s Pakistan policy has embarked on a new and momentous course.
This was most clearly articulated in his speech to the Combined Commanders onboard the Vikramaditya earlier this month when he said that his government was “engaging Pakistan to try and turn the course of history.” Actually, the signals were there in the Ufa statement of July where it was stated that Modi would attend the 19th SAARC summit in Islamabad in 2016. The acceptance indicated that the government’s policy had already shifted course and the hiccups that derailed the promised NSAs dialogue were only temporary – a fact that became clear when news of the Bangkok meetingwas revealed.
It was in January 2004, on the sidelines of the 13th SAARC summit in Islamabad, that India and Pakistan inaugurated a most fruitful phase of peace diplomacy through the joint statement of January 6. That summit sought to embed India-Pakistan relations in the larger effort to create a South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA), an institution which is still in the making and long overdue.
This time around, it would appear that the India-Pakistan bonhomie is situated in an understanding that the two countries must work towards a common purpose in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan the key
Whether the Afghans have learnt that the road to Islamabad runs via Delhi, or India has realised that the road to Kabul runs via Islamabad, is not clear. But there does seem to be a growing understanding that India and Pakistan’s relations with Afghanistan cannot be a zero-sum game. Significantly, following Islamabad in 2015, New Delhi will be hosting the next Heart of Asia regional conference in 2016 aimed at bringing peace and economic development in Afghanistan.
So while Modi gently ribbed Pakistan about its obsession with “the mysterious Indian consulates,” in his address to Afghanistan’s parliament on December 25, he also spoke in the same speech of his hope that “Pakistan will become a bridge between South Asia and Afghanistan and beyond.”
In the Afghan context, Modi’s trip to Lahore from Kabul was a master-stroke. Whether he meant it that way or not, it was the equivalent of a regional olive branch. Pakistani commentators looking on at the Kabul love-fest, the huge bear hug that Modi got from President Ashraf Ghani, and the news about the Indian supply of Mi-35 attack helicopters, have been left bemused at the spectacle of his descent to Raiwind. The signal is clear, India wants Afghanistan to be a cooperative sum game with Pakistan. Our immediate interests are limited and they can expand only with the cooperation of Pakistan, i.e. through the opening of a land corridor through that country.
Actually, the big challenge is before Islamabad. Given its history, it is now being asked by Washington and Beijing to deliver on the ceasefire by using the clout it has over the Taliban. It’s not clear that it can do so. The fiasco over the death of Mullah Omar was an attempt to start cleaning up Islamabad’s record, but it has created so much turbulence that no one seems to know what is happening.
What is propelling change in Islamabad and New Delhi is the awareness being pushed by Washington and Beijing, that if the violence in Afghanistan is not contained, it will set the stage for the rise of more radical Islamist forces. The last time around this was manifested by the rise of the Al Qaeda, this time it could mean the Islamic State, which would be devastating for both Pakistan and Afghanistan and, possibly, India.
What India and the world ought to be looking for is not the checking off of individual names on the terrorist checklist, but a sense that Pakistan is finally through with the use of terrorism and proxy warriors to push its foreign policy. At this stage, New Delhi needs to step up its engagement and assist Islamabad in turning over a new leaf – and not provide ammunition to those within Pakistan who want to cling to the old policy in the hope that it will produce dividends.
In some measure, this has been the policy we have followed which has emphasised building ties with civilian governments. But the chicanery of world powers, who have always privileged their own short-term geopolitical interests over this region’s long-term needs, has prevented any substantial movement. Let us see now if the leaders of the two countries can seize the agenda and push the region in a transformational trajectory.
This article originally appeared in The Wire.