India and Pakistan staged the other day a virtual diplomatic coup that brought together the Prime Ministers of the two countries at Lahore though for as short a time as for a couple of hours only. Will this lead to a turnaround in the relationship of the two neighbours? Opinion is deeply divided on this, writes Shankar Kumar
Perhaps, it never happened before in the annals of India’s foreign policy. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, taking the nation and his cabinet colleagues, including External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, by utter surprise, made an unannounced stopover at Lahore to greet his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif on his birthday, the December 25th.
At the Lahore airport, Prime Minister Sharif welcomed his Indian counterpart. From the airport both Prime Ministers flew together in a chopper to Sharif’s hometown, Raiwind, about 40 kilometres away from Lahore to attend his granddaughter’s wedding. Such “unprecedented” move by the Prime Minister was decried by Opposition and some dyed-in-the-wool diplomats like KC Singh, but it was lapped up by those who believe in the normalisation of the frosty relations between the two countries. Former Foreign Secretary Lalit Mansingh said, “It is a good beginning. I am of the belief that we have no option other than engaging with Pakistan.”
In the history of India and Pakistan’s diplomatic relations, this was seventh prime ministerial visit to Pakistan. And, since May 26, 2014 when Modi took over, it was fifth meeting between Modi and Sharif. In fact, Prime Minister, during his official visit to Afghanistan to inaugurate India-built Parliament in Kabul, gave a ring to Sharif to wish him a happy birthday. It is said that it was during the two leaders’ talks over phone that the Pakistan Prime Minister invited Modi to come to Lahore and he accepted the invitation without batting his eyelids. Incidentally, sixteen years ago, one of Modi’s predecessors Atal Behari Vajapayee had also unveiled his Government’s policy towards Pakistan by taking a bus ride to Lahore where, equally in the same gracious manner, Prime Minister Sharif had welcomed him. But soon after the bus diplomacy between the two countries, the Kargil clash took place. Given this, several critics wonder what guarantee Modi’s ‘birthday diplomacy’ could have against falling apart. They remind, in the immediate context, of Modi-Sharif talks in Ufa. After their meeting, a joint statement was issued in which both agreed to NSA-level meet to discuss all issues connected to terrorism. But, it failed as Pakistan’s the then NSA Sartaj Aziz insisted on meeting Huriyyat leaders before his scheduled meeting with his Indian counterpart Ajit Doval in New Delhi. Not only that India witnessed a rise in unprovoked firing from Pakistan but also some serious cross border terror incidents, including attacks on police station in Dinanagar in Punjab and BSF convoy in Udhampur in Jammu and Kashmir. The two countries’ relations once again soured so much that Modi and Sharif, despite staying in the same hotel in New York through their UN General Assembly visit, avoided to make an eye-to-eye contact with each other, forget about their handshake.
However, things started taking a positive turn once again between the two countries after Modi and Sharif’s brief tete-a-tete in Paris. Soon after this meet, NSA Doval and his Pakistani counterpart Lieutenant General (Retd) Nasser Khan Janjua held their meeting in Bangkok and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Islamabad to attend ‘Heart of Asia’ conference. But sources say that India-Pakistan ties started de-freezing not after Modi-Sharif talks in Paris, but after Pakistan army chief General Raheel Sharif’s uninvited visit to the US in November. During talks with US officials, General Sharif was pointedly told to focus more on fighting home-grown terrorists rather than escalating tensions with India. Also, in no uncertain terms Pakistan was warned that the US would withhold $300 million military aid if Islamabad did not mend its approach vis-à-vis India and home-grown terrorist outfits.
Experts have, however, a different take on sudden change of atmospherics that led the two countries to warm up towards each other. They say the resource-hit Pakistan army is fighting a fierce battle against Taliban and their other Jehadi cohorts in the region close to Afghanistan, and as such by upping its ante against India, it does not want to open another front.
Whatever may be the reason, Modi’s almost two-hour-long stopover in Pakistan has kicked up a debate. While the BJP termed Modi’s Pakistan overture a “master-stroke”, Opposition led by the Congress called it “but for a master-stroke.” Notwithstanding such political paradoxes, the trust gap between the two countries is not going to be easily bridged as India’s every move to ratchet up relations with Pakistan has been meted out with Islamabad’s shameless betrayal. Kargil war, 2001 attack on Indian Parliament, Mumbai 2008 mayhem, Dinanagar police station assault and Udhampur incident are only some of the numerous examples in a long list of costly betrayals.