It is a familiar sight when India-Pakistan interactions raise hopes but only to end up as damp squib. In fact, that is a well-established pattern, and the bleached landscape is littered with carcasses of India-Pakistan summit meetings.
But this is the first time ever that an important meet, contemplated at the level of the National Security Advisors, simply collapsed like a sack of potatoes even before it took place – in fact, just a day before it was to have taken place.
Neither India nor Pakistan comes out of the debris looking elegant. They look like inebriated souls incapable of mature adult behavior expected of nuclear powers.
The meeting of the national security advisors was originally agreed upon between the two prime ministers – Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif – when they met on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Ufa six weeks ago. Curiously, the two sides seem to heave a sigh of relief that the meeting, which was scheduled to be held in Delhi on Sunday, has somehow got scuttled.
The big question, therefore, is why Modi and Sharif created this mess in the first instance. Strange motivations work on the minds of politicians everywhere and in the case of India and Pakistan, given their tortuous history, domestic compulsions have always been a big factor.
Neither Modi nor Sharif, who, admittedly, run their governments on the basis of big electoral mandates, has anything worthwhile to show by way of ‘good governance’. Both lurch from one domestic controversy to the next.
Modi travelled to Ufa in July as an embattled leader amidst serious allegations (here, here and here) that his party colleagues, including a senior cabinet minister, were involved in corruption and acts of impropriety.
Modi is a smart politician who knows how to gerrymander public attention toward directions that suit his own interests. The ‘breakthrough’ with Pakistan in Ufa certainly took the Indian public by surprise, and, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin in the famous German fable, Modi led the way and the Indians followed the rat-catcher.
In retrospect, it is apparent that the decision to meet Sharif at Ufa itself could not have been a properly thought-through diplomatic initiative on Modi’s part. He hoped to garner praise for statesmanship that would ameliorate his tarnished image in the domestic opinion, and, conceivably, that remained his principal political objective.
Quite obviously, right from the word ‘Go’, the right-wing Hindu nationalist forces and the hardliners in the Indian establishment began systematically debunking the Ufa understanding that India and Pakistan will seriously engage on the basis of their ‘common responsibility’ to work for peace in the subcontinent.
Modi, as usual, was not to be seen anywhere explaining why he did what he did in Ufa by meeting Sharif and making such a historic move out of the blue to discuss terrorism as a “common responsibility” with Pakistan instead of self-righteously blaming Pakistan as a state sponsoring terrorism.
Equally, on the Pakistani side, there was profound difficulty within the establishment to suspend the entrenched disbelief and imagine that Modi could be sincerely advocating a good-neighborly relationship with Pakistan. No doubt, Modi, given his controversial role in the handling of the anti-Muslim riots in 2002 in Gujarat, evokes strong feelings in the Pakistani mind. More than that, there is a deep-rooted perception in Pakistan that ultranationalist Hindu fundamentalist forces mentor the present government in India and they neither seek a friendly relationship nor wish Pakistan well.
The inordinate delay of three weeks on the part of Islamabad to respond to the Indian demarche on fixing the date of the meeting of the two national security advisors (August 23-24) in New Delhi itself testified to the deep skepticism of the Pakistani establishment about India’s intentions.
Meanwhile, the tensions on the border began cascading with both sides finger pointing at each other. India has alleged not less than 91 border ‘incidents’ by Pakistan in the six-week period since the Ufa summit.
All in all, therefore, the conclusion that can be drawn at this point is, inevitably, that neither side was sincerely eager – or even prepared – to engage with the other in talks. Both Modi and Sharif appear to have gone through the motions of cordiality and statesmanship at the Ufa meeting at the behest of the United States, which has been pressing for an India-Pakistan engagement as a necessary underpinning of its overall regional strategies to run with Pakistan in the Hindu Kush and hunt with India in the great ‘commons’ of the Asia-Pacific.
Sharif is expected to visit Washington in October. As for the Modi government, its eagerness to harmonize India’s regional policies with Washington’s is no secret. By the way, Modi is also due to meet President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in late September in New York, which will be their second meeting this year.
To be sure, Delhi and Islamabad will now plead with Washington that if the meet on Sunday didn’t materialize, it was entirely due to the other side’s recalcitrance, obduracy and/or lack of sincerity.
The heart of the matter is that the India-Pakistan relationship is entangled today in regional politics. With the transition in Kabul in January to the leadership of President Ashraf Ghani, India lost the ‘great game’ to Pakistan and there is much bitterness in Delhi on that score.
On the other hand, when the Mullah Omar myth dissipated overnight on July 29, there is also rekindled hope in Delhi that a new great game may be just about to begin. To be sure, India will make an earnest attempt to claw its way back on the greasy pole in Kabul, exploiting the disharmony that has erupted in Ghani’s equations with the Pakistani leadership.
As Delhi would see it, its advantage lies in engaging with Pakistan only from a position of strength and regaining its lost influence in Kabul would enable it to leverage India-Pakistan tensions in its favor.
On the other hand, Islamabad is acutely conscious today that it is back on ground zero in Kabul and if it engages with India at this point, it will be doing so from a position of weakness.
The disarray within the Taliban and the great uncertainties that face the AfPak question, what with the unraveling of the Taliban narrative as well as the sharp deterioration in the climate of Afghan-Pakistan relations – these are Pakistan’s major preoccupations today.
Pakistan is perilously close today to losing its ‘centrality’ in the search of an Afghan settlement. More important, the fragmentation of the Taliban insurgency is fraught with dangerous consequences for Pakistan’s national security. At the back of it all, the prospect of Indian influence surging in Kabul worries Pakistan.
Suffice it to say, a curious diplomatic pirouette was playing out during the past week with neither New Delhi nor Islamabad any longer wanting the scheduled meeting this Sunday to go ahead, but at the same time not also wanting to be seen as responsible for scuttling the meeting.
In a sense, the match has ended in a ‘draw’, so to speak, with both sides salvaging enough to crow about diplomatic ‘victory’ but without wanting to be in a triumphalist mood. Funnily, there is already incipient talk in Delhi regarding another meeting between Modi and Sharif on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in New York in a month’s time. No doubt, Washington will encourage such a meeting.