Nobody would rule out a meeting between the Pakistani Premier Nawaz Sharif and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) this June. It is pre-planned, yet officially might be a ‘chance’ interaction.
Such encounters often occur despite roadblocks, even when a tiff between the two countries has reached the International Court of Justice.
There is no confirmation that National Security Advisors of the two countries are scheduled to meet in the near future. Still no one rules out a strong impact of Indian businessman Sajjan Jindal’s recent meeting with Sharif. Known as a personal friend of both him and Modi, Jindal was said to have been instrumental in bringing the latter to Lahore on December 25 for a surprise visit.
Jindal’s recent visit is being seen in the backdrop of Track-II diplomacy that both the countries traditionally undertake when the official channels are clogged.
Early in January this year, diplomats hint, there was another Track-II kind of discourse is said to have taken place in Dubai where politicians, former officials had met. Senate Defence Committee Chairman Mushahid Hussain Syed was there from the Pakistan side and Shashi Tharoor, Chairman of Indian Parliament’s External Affairs Committee, represented Indian legislators. Both gentlemen do not strictly represent ruling parties on either side of the border, but they definitely carry weight with the Establishment on both sides. All this is part of confidence building measures (CBMs) that the two sides are unofficially taking since the secretary level talks have by and large been stalled since Modi took charge in mid-2014.
In late 2015, the Sartaj-Sushma meeting in Islamabad on the sidelines of the Heart of Asia conference set the course for the process to resume which enabled the Indian prime minister’s short and surprise visit on December 25, 2015 to Pakistan.
But the euphoria could not last.
The terrorist attacks at Pathankot Air Force Station and then in Uri, India, halted all progress made as India squarely blamed Pakistan for the incidents. Since then, the two countries have been engaged in a blame game, a war of words that is being waged on official, unofficial and media fronts without ceasefire.
Moreover, the Lahore sojourn was not taken in good spirits by Pakistan’s right wing politicians, as well as many security analysts and quarters considered close to the military establishment. The main objection was that the Sharif family had apparently made an effort to mark the occasion to further a personal rapport with Modi rather than a state-to-state affair.
Things got worse when Pakistani authorities nabbed the alleged Indian spy Kulbhushan Jadhav, and peaked recently when he was awarded capital punishment.
“Pakistan accepting counsellor access to Kulbhushan and allowing an Indian delegation to visit Pakistan for a Pathankot-related probe could have kick-started India-Pakistan formal talks. That didn’t happen. So nothing can be said with surety about any move on the diplomatic front now. But you never know the next move our prime minister could make. He may walk straight to Sharif at the SCO summit and shake hands to start the process,” says an Indian diplomat.
Senator Mushahid Hussain suggests a practical approach. “The way forward now is for India to respond to Pakistan’s initiatives for peace by resuming the back channel dialogue process, agreeing to a new date for the Saarc Summit in Pakistan soon and announce resumption of dialogue at the two PMs’ meeting in Astana on June 7 during the SCO Summit.
“The ball is in the Indian court now and we should be ready for another of Modi’s U-turns regarding Pakistan, sooner rather than later.”
Nobody discounts Modi’s ability to make a surprise move and reach out to his Pakistani counterpart at the SCO summit. That would be a big leap forward. And some Pakistani officials don’t rule it out in the wake of Jindal’s recent meeting with Nawaz Sharif.
A brief interaction between the two premiers at Ufa Russia happened after the national security advisors (NSAs) of the two countries cleared some air and laid down the rules of engagement. Still there is this feeling that Modi likes to keep the initiative to himself, and at the time of his choosing. Now that he has sailed through key state elections, the only impediment in the way is Jadhav’s fate.
“If talks resume, they will be part of the cyclical nature of this relationship where the two countries go from not talking to each other to talking to each other,” believes Husain Haqqani, former Pakistani ambassador to the United States.
“Modi and Sharif, like their predecessors, do want to improve relations and have tried to do so in the first two years of their governments.”
Haqqani contends that if talks are restarted, it would reflect the desire of Sharif and Modi to move forward. “But deep down, what agreement is possible?”
Hence the crucial question: Will he (Modi) show his leadership mettle on the occasion of the SCO summit this June? It boggles many minds. The timing of Jindal’s Pakistan sojourn, at least suggests so, despite all the odds hindering such an initiative.
There was a time once when Modi wondered who to engage with talks in Pakistan — the elected government or the powerful military establishment? In the process, he undermined Sharif’s sincere efforts to push for South Asian peace when bracing sharp criticism from strong lobbies at home.
At home too, Modi is being criticised by the opposition for adopting a knee-jerk sort of foreign policy towards Pakistan, one that employs confusing contours. The Pakistani side strongly feels that since coming to power three years back, the Indian premier is spearheading a Pakistan policy that is more focused on point-scoring at regional and international forums rather than engaging in meaningful, constructive talks, bilaterally.
When Modi dropped by in Lahore in 2015, a majority of retired generals, defence and foreign policy experts, intelligentsia, and many like-minded, rightwing politicians thought of Sharif’s aforementioned reaction to it as a sign of weakness. Getting too cosy with India without treading a formal course of talks on key disputes like Kashmir won’t lead the country anywhere, they believe.
The position of Pakistan’s establishment is that India should be engaged in talks without doling out any major concessions on trade, people-to-people contact, until both countries move forward in constructive meaningful talks on Kashmir.