Surprised by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s impromptu stopover in Lahore to greet his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif on his birthday and his granddaughter’s wedding, the media has struggled to find an appropriate description for the trip.
All sorts of phrases and metaphors have been employed to explain Modi’s move. ‘Rule breaker’, ‘re-writing the diplomatic lexicon’, ‘spontaneous’, ‘personal diplomacy’, ‘innovative’, ‘diplomatic coup’, ‘giant leap’, and ‘historic’ were just few of them.
The move definitely left millions, not just in Pakistan and India but all over the world, amazed. An Indian prime minister visiting Pakistan after more than 11 years, and more importantly in the backdrop of recent tensions that started after Modi came to power, was by no means a small development.
But now that the initial magic has started to fade, and the excitement all of us felt is over, it is time to look at what the visit meant for the two countries.
This realization could be found in the Senate, which called Adviser on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz for a statement on Mr Modi’s visit.
Mr Sartaj Aziz was candid. He said the interaction could help the process of bilateral re-engagement that began with an ice-breaking meeting on the sidelines of the Climate Change Summit in Paris last month, but at the same time cautioned against having “unrealistic expectations”.
The government has been describing it as a “goodwill visit”, but in the context of recent developments and India’s stated position on issues related to Pakistan, little doubt remains that it was a tactical move on Modi’s part, rather than a strategic shift in India’s foreign policy formulation. A mix of factors prompted the Indian prime minister’s decision to revisit his government’s Pakistan strategy, including international pressure, the compulsions of regional engagement, and business opportunities in Afghanistan. Pakistani and Indian officials have alluded to one or more of these factors in their statements in the last few weeks.
The move was tactical rather than strategic
There is no denying that foreign policy actions are dictated by a country’s national interest. But what is wrong with Modi’s approach towards Pakistan is his inconsistency and unpredictability.
Hours before landing in Lahore, while addressing Afghan legislators in Kabul, Modi made veiled jabs against Pakistan. “Afghanistan will succeed only when terrorism no longer flows across the border,” he said. “When nurseries and sanctuaries of terrorism are shut, and their patrons are no longer in business… terror and violence cannot be the instrument to shape Afghanistan’s future or dictate the choices Afghans make.”
How different was the Modi walking hand in hand with Nawaz Sharif in Lahore, from the one in Kabul? Diplomacy does not work this way. US Scholar David Cohen once noted: “Flexibility and unpredictability are not the same thing. It is always good to be flexible, but too much unpredictability can cause all your neighbors to decide that you are too dangerous to have around.”
Ambassador (r) Ashraf Jehangir Qazi says such an attitude is not very helpful, particularly in the long run. “Unpredictability by itself may create surprises, but it does not create political breakthroughs,” he says. “That requires a shared vision, commitment and sustained follow-up. Wanting something and doing what is necessary to achieve it are different things. Is Modi sincere? Is Nawaz a leader? We will find out soon.”
Prime Ministers Modi and Sharif have met five times (not counting the secret Kathmandu meeting, which is officially denied, but diplomats confirm off the record) since the BJP government was formed some 18 months ago. But what have these meetings exactly delivered other than the personal rapport that the two have developed?
The post-Paris process – including the Bangkok meeting of the national security advisers, Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s participation in the Heart of Asia Conference in Islamabad, and the agreement on restarting the bilateral dialogue for which foreign secretaries of the two countries are meeting sometime in mid-January – may have been helped by better communication at the prime minister level, but there are other dynamics at play too. Pakistan made some major concessions to India to get this process started.
One cannot avoid asking what message Mr Modi had for Pakistan in his Lahore visit other than a photo-op with Mr Sharif and attending his family celebrations.
“To my mind, there is nothing substantial in this outreach and we must not be surprised when we hit a random dead end again,” Indian columnist Aakar Patel says.
Another Indian journalist, Raza Laskar, looks at it differently. “The visit to Lahore has been both welcomed and greeted with some skepticism in India,” he says. “It is good that the prime ministers are meeting more often. it only helps the two sides handle the trust deficit and put things on an even keel.” Laskar thinks that the upcoming foreign secretary talks could now be more focused.
But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The outcome of the foreign secretaries meeting will say a lot about the future direction of things. The very schedule of future meetings that will emerge from the talks will reveal the priorities.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad