As the Times of India put it, a brief meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif appeared to have salvaged the summit of the South Asian leaders with the member countries clinching a last-moment deal to create an electricity grid.
This agreement may well be seen in the context of Pakistan earlier declining to enter into any such agreement and refusing to sign two other proposed pacts to boost cross-border road and rail traffic.
A photo-op handshake and forced smiles are not going to bridge the distance the two leaders deliberately kept from each other during the two days of the summit.
Ahead of his visit, Modi had said that “close relations” with neighbours was a priority for his government and he was looking forward to holding talks with other South Asian heads on the margins of the summit. At the same time, on the eve of the Summit however, a spokesman of the Ministry of External Affairs named the countries whose heads the Indian Prime Minister would be meeting. Pakistan was not on that list. Neither was Nawaz Sharif willing to request India to renew talks as the cancellation of the dialogue came from New Delhi, unilaterally. The ball therefore was in India’s court.
The theme of the 8th SAARC summit was “deeper integration for peace and prosperity”. This South Asian regional organization remains far from this goal. Its charter doesn’t permit the discussion of continuing contentious issues. Notwithstanding this restriction, a leading Pakistani Urdu Newspaper has criticized Nawaz Sharif for not making a reference to Kashmir at the conference (although Modi in a speech did recall the Mumbai terrorist attack).
If the festering disputes between the two largest South Asian countries remain unaddressed, how can there be trust and a feeling of amity. And if mistrust and misgivings keep growing, can there be a real breakthrough in mutual relations?
The SAARC track record remains disappointing. It has one-fifth of the world population and two-fifths of the world’s poor. While ASEAN trade within the region is 25%, SAARC’s intra-regional trade is just about 5%. Only 18 summits have been held during the last 30 years. It is conflicts in the region that have blocked the prospects of making a real headway.
Modi’s speech at the SAARC summit reflected his ambition to attain the unquestioned leadership of the region. At the back of his mind was the urge to rival China and build up India’s influence through patronizing the smaller neighbours and extending influence through trade and investment.
How will Modi’s rise to power impinge on India-Pakistan relations? A lot will depend on how Pakistan adjusts to a changing scenario.
Islamabad has first to acknowledge that BJP’s phenomenal victory in the Indian elections earlier this year installed a powerful leader at India’s helm. The turnout of voters in this election was the highest ever in Indian history. Modi’s performance-record in Gujrat and his outstanding leadership role contributed substantially to BJP’s success. Other factors were the poor record of the incumbent government as well as the weak and unimpressive leadership of Manmohan Singh and Rahul Gandhi. The use of media too boosted Modi as the man of the hour and his image as a rising star.
In a recent article, Kuldeep Nayar has revealed that Modi, an erstwhile parcharak of RSS, frequently consults the current BJP head Mr. Bhagwat who the other day remarked that the Hindu Raj in India has come after 800 years of foreign rule. The BJP election manifesto requires the party inter alia to strive to build Ram temple at the demolished Ayyodhia mosque site and to rescind Article 370 of the Indian Constitution with a view to fully integrate Kashmir into Bharat.
The Modi government’s drastic action to stop Pakistani government officials from meeting Kashmiri leaders was not just a sudden off the cuff reaction. It was a very well considered move, as a new policy to deny Pakistan’s right to talk and consult Kashmiri leaders, denying its position as an internationally acknowledged party to the Kashmir dispute as written into UN resolutions. So long as these resolutions on Kashmir remain valid, Pakistan has every right to use its discretion to meet Kashmiri leaders and pursue the objective of securing justice for them, through the exercise of their right to self-determination. Pakistan has all alone, over the years, been exercising this option. It may also be mentioned that this right was conceded, way back by Governor General of India Mountbatten and Prime Minister Pundit Nehru even prior to the passing of the UN resolutions.
One may here refer to a recent Times of India newsflash about the construction of laser walls to be used by Indian Border Security Force to make border checks more effective. The laser wall will ensure that anyone approaching the border or breaking the beam in an unfenced zone sets off an alarm. Anti-summit ground sensors are also to be installed in fenced stretches.
In a leading Pakistani TV channel discussion on Thursday night, a BJP media spokesman categorically warned Pakistan not to interfere in India’s internal affairs as Kashmir, according to him, was an integral part of Bharat. This claim was rebutted by Pakistani participants. A former Indian diplomat who had served as ambassador to Pakistan in the 70s, sternly told the anchor that India “shall never forgive terrorism perpetrated by Pakistan in Mumbai” and insisted on punishing Pakistani culprits without delay. The Pakistani participants rebutted the diplomat’s demonization of Pakistan by citing India’s role in the break-up of the country in 1971 and the killing of Pakistanis in the Samjhota Express.
If both sides do not exercise restraint and keep on carrying troublesome historical baggage, how can they ever agree to amicably resolve their disputes and differences?
Now that India has practically closed the door for talks even under the Shimla Agreement, Pakistan has to step up its public diplomacy to enlist support from influential world capitals to persuade India to come to the negotiating table. It is very much in India’s own interest to agree to a settlement of these issues if it wishes to succeed in achieving its goal of an acknowledged power. Prime Minister Modi would be well-advised to exercise restraint and review his stance on Pakistan.
The writer is an ex-federal secretary and ambassador, and a freelance political and international relations analyst. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org