Tuesday, 2 September 2014 -Agency: DNA
Jatin Desai

There is a saying- well begun is half done. But this is not always the case. sometimes things begin well but then do not move in the way planned. This hard reality is clearly reflected in the Foreign Policy of the Narendra Modi government.

It began with a bang by inviting all leaders of the South Asian Association of Regional Co-operation (SAARC) countries for the swearing-in ceremony of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister. This move was an important step in the right direction. It automatically included Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, which was seen as a master stroke. By inviting Sharif, Modi had on one hand silenced Shiv Sena, the alliance partner with a staunch anti-Pakistan stand and on the other hand, helped in strengthening democratic forces in Pakistan. Understandably, it took some time for Sharif to accept the invite. Earlier last year, Sharif had invited the then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Islamabad for his swearing-in ceremony as Prime Minister of Pakistan. While talking about his vision of South Asia in 2007, Singh had said he wants to see a day when one could have breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore and dinner in Kabul. But in his tenure of 10 years, despite many formal invites, Singh never visited Pakistan though Pakistani PMs and the President did visit India. Hence, the Modi-Sharif meeting instantly became a hit. Hopes were raised. Political commentators saw a new beginning in Indo-Pak relations. It looked like a continuation of the policy of Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

The Modi government also decided to give more emphasis to South Asia, South-East Asia and Asia. Importance to neighbouring countries was a departure from the earlier regime.Modi began his foreign visit with Bhutan and then Nepal. He went to Brazil for the BRICSsummit. Japan is equally important. Sushma Swaraj, minister for external affairs, went to Bangladesh and then to Vietnam. Her visit to Bangladesh was important as she had to pacify the Bangladesh leadership on the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) signed byManmohan Singh and Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh PM in 2010. The Indian parliament had to ratify this, but could not do so because of BJP’s opposition. Now it is the responsibility of the BJP-led government to ratify it. There is a growing feeling in Bangladesh that they are giving too much to India without getting anything in return. Sushma Swaraj also visited Burma (Myanmar), another neighbouring country, but part of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

In this background, a meeting between India and Pakistan’s foreign secretaries was decided to be held in Islamabad on August 25. Meanwhile in Pakistan, the Imran Khan led Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and the Tahir Ul Qadri led Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) began a movement against Prime Minister Nawaz. On August 18, Abdul Basit, Pakistan’s High Commissioner in India, invited Hurriyat leader Shabbir Shah for a meeting on the Kashmir situation. He had also invited Yasin Malik and Mirwaiz Umar the next day. Earlier on the same day, Indian foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh called Basit and told him to cancel his meeting with Hurriyat leader Shabir Shah or else the secretary-level talks would be cancelled.

Following Abdul Basit’s meeting with Shabir Shah, India unilaterally decided to cancel the foreign secretary level meeting. Many Indian analysts welcomed this decision, but as expected, different voices also emerged. The Pakistan High Commission officials meeting Hurriyat leaders is not a new thing. It happens whenever the Pakistan Prime Minister, President or Foreign Minister visits India. It also takes place whenever there is a meeting between the two countries. The Indian government need not be over sensitive to such meetings. A meeting between Pakistani officials and the Hurriyat can neither strengthen Pakistan’s position on Kashmir nor weaken India’s position.

The Indian foreign secretary could have raised the issue of the Pakistan High Commissioner’s meeting with Hurriyat leaders at the scheduled meeting rather than cancelling it altogether. At the same time, Pakistan also could have prevented the cancellation of talks by postponing, if not cancelling the meeting with Hurriyat leaders. For India and Pakistan, cancelling a meeting is easier than deciding on one. Now it will take months to revive the process again.

It will be naïve to believe that the meeting was cancelled only because of the High Commissioner’s meeting with Hurriyat leaders. There were also some domestic compulsions that played a part. Elections are slated in four states of Jammu & Kashmir, Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand in October-November this year. The BJP is working hard to come to power in Jammu & Kashmir. The thinking in BJP is hardline at this juncture and will help the party in a big way in the Jammu and Leh region. If this happens, it can open an opportunity for the BJP to come to power with a couple of smaller parties, or it may support a leader from the Kashmir valley to form a government. One should not forget that Modi has visited the state of Jammu & Kashmir twice so far.

But the dialogue between India and Pakistan should not be derailed because of elections or a terror attack. It has to be uninterrupted and uninterruptible. Hawkish elements on both sides of the border always try to jeopardise the dialogue process.

The people of Kashmir valley want peace. They want their aspirations to be fulfilled. In a democracy, peoples’ aspirations and will is crucial. India has reiterated its position by saying it is ready to discuss the Kashmir issue with Pakistan within the framework of the bilateral agreements of the Simla pact and Lahore declaration. But the reality is that it is not a mere bilateral issue. It is a trilateral issue. The people of J&K are equal stakeholders. No decision can be arrived at without the consent of the people.

After May 26, both the Prime Ministers are likely to meet on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in September. They should give a serious thought on how to move ahead. Both countries need to realise that the future of SAARC and especially its least developed countries depend on India-Pakistan relations. In 2010, the then Maldivian president Mohammad Nasheed said at the SAARC summit in Thimpu that a “good relationship between India and Pakistan is important for SAARC and I think it is achievable and doable.”

The new government is hardly 100 days old. One cannot judge the overall performance of foreign policy of a government in such a short time. The government needs to realise the complexity of international relations and move forward keeping the betterment of South Asia in mind.