For the 1.5 billion inhabitants of India and Pakistan, the last week’s meeting between their premiers is a positive sign.
Things seem to be moving in the right direction for Pakistan and India as both Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India have a clear majority in their respective parliaments and a heavy mandate from their respective voters.
To the few critics of the Nawaz government’s decision to attend Modi’s oath-taking ceremony, my question is what could have been the alternative: a path of confrontation? Can we (or India) afford a confrontation? Declining this invitation would have been interpreted as Pakistan’s unwillingness to develop good working relations with the new Indian government, which is certainly not the intention of the current government.
In fact, it has never been the intention of our successive governments. Contrary to the common perception, that the contours of our foreign policy are determined by the “hidden hands”, one should appreciate that despite belonging to different political spectrums, our successive heads of state — Ziaul Haq, Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif, Pervez Musharraf, Asif Zardari, and Yousaf Raza Gillani have all visited India, even on non-official visits, and tried to bridge the trust deficit between India and Pakistan.
Also, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s decision has certainly sent positive vibes to the international community. This is despite the fact that no Indian prime minister has visited Pakistan since 1999 (after Vajpayee’s last visit to Pakistan for the Lahore Summit).
Interestingly, one of the reasons Manmohan Singh could not visit Pakistan despite his “Punjab Connection” was strong opposition from the Bharatiya Janata Party. Congress was so vulnerable that it could not afford Manmohan’s unofficial visit to his birthplace (Chakwal) or to his most sacred religious place (Nankana Sahib).
BJP not only criticised any attempt of Congress for normalising relations with Pakistan but also took tough stance against Pakistan in its electoral campaign. Many critics were of the view before the elections that Modi’s coming into power would imply deterioration of relations between India and Pakistan. However, in politics the opposition leader enjoys the absolute freedom to take any emotional position and to give any sweeping statement, but once in power he/she needs to make sane choices.
Modi made that sane choice to invite heads of SAARC countries (and Mauritius) for his oath-taking ceremony. By this move, he not only gave a message to his domestic stakeholders that he as prime minister of India would be different from his previous role as chief minister of Gujarat, but also signalled to the external stakeholders that India is willing to capitalise on the SAARC collateral. The most important aspect of his move was that he invited the prime minister of Pakistan without getting accused that he had radically changed his position on Pakistan.
It is said that SAARC has been held hostage by the ups and downs in the Indo-Pak relations. In this context, Nawaz’s visit to India is even more important.
The “great expectations” from Modi-Nawaz meeting were unrealistic though. The meeting was not meant to resolve any bilateral issues. It was essentially a ceremonial meeting to give “faces to the names” as they say and its objective was to establish a personal rapport between the two leaders. They are supposed to meet at least twice over the course of next seven months and a personal rapport established now would be helpful for all future meetings.
I often say that if the “right to the centre” governments in India and Pakistan decide to have good relations, they would meet with minimum resistance from their “left to centre” political opponents. Both the PML-N and the BJP are right to centre (rather BJP is slightly more right than centre) parties and we have already seen historic progress on bilateral relations during the Lahore Summit of 1999 under the leadership of Vajpayee (BJP) and Nawaz Sharif.
This time, Nawaz-Modi pair has a competitive edge over Nawaz-Vajpayee. Both Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif are pro-business and enjoy good confidence of their respective business communities. Both came to power predominately on their economic agendas and they seem to understand that peace is the dividend of improved economic relations.
That is why in their maiden meeting, Modi said that the two countries can immediately move to normalised trade relations and expected a quick announcement for non-discriminatory market access (NDMA) for India from Pakistan, while Nawaz offered the Indian investors to invest in Pakistan’s energy sector with a promised rate of return of up to 30 per cent.
There was slight twist in this whole saga. The statement of Indian Foreign Secretary, saying “Mr Modi also underlined our concerns related to terrorism” and “It was conveyed that Pakistan must abide by its commitment to prevent its territory and territory under its control from being used for terrorism against India”, did not reflect either the content or the spirit of the meeting.
In political terms, it was like an introductory meeting where the two premiers were trying to get to know each other. They would have identified the issues and asked their teams to engage on those in the near future. In any case, in a 45-minute meeting, there can be no substantial discussion on the core issues. However, one should expect that such issues would come under discussion in the next bilateral meetings, especially during the sideline of the SAARC Summit in October 2014.
To sum up, the meeting between the two premiers is a nice beginning. Keeping in view the fragile relations between India and Pakistan, no one can predict how far this nice beginning would take us. However, elected and non-elected leadership on both sides of the border should understand that Asian Century is a reality and there is a visible shift from traditional centres of power.
In 2013, new governments took over in China (March 2013), Pakistan (May 2013) and Iran (December 2013). In 2014, we have a new government in Bangladesh, new constitutional assembly in Nepal, new government in India, and very soon there would be a new government in Afghanistan. This change in regional leadership is very significant in shaping the political economy and pathways of regional development. The idea is that new leaders should not repeat the mistakes of their predecessors and build upon the opportunities of working together for a sustainable future.
The three nationalist governments — in China, Japan and Russia — are already positioning themselves to play their role and claim their share in the Asian Century. South Asia can also play a major role (and claim a major share) by turning into a hub of growth, but to reach there, regional cooperation is a must.
On another note, there is also a human side of the whole exercise. The release of fishermen languishing in jails, first by Pakistan and then by India, is a gesture that may be indicative of more positive things to come. In the same way, the gift of a shawl from Narendra Modi to Nawaz Sharif’s mother indicates that both sides have the willingness to explore the benefits of peace for not just the people of both the countires but the entire region.