Commentary / World

Modi's surprise Christmas Day visit to Pakistan

On Dec. 25, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sprang a Christmas surprise by dropping in for tea with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The impromptu meeting was a much-needed reminder of just why Indians voted so massively for Modi in the 2014 general election as a bold, decisive and courageous leader who would cut through decades of accumulated cobwebs to shake up the country’s domestic and foreign policy settings alike.

Modi becomes the first Indian prime minister to set foot on Pakistani soil since Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2004. Dec. 25 happens to be Nawaz Sharif’s birthday, and also that of Vajpayee, the last Indian leader to have met a Pakistani prime minister — none other than Sharif. Indeed the latter has the unusual distinction of having met every Indian prime minister since 1990.

Modi was on a two-day visit to Afghanistan on his way back from an official visit to Russia. After an eloquent and emotional address in the new $90 million national parliament custom-built by India, Modi telephoned from his car to congratulate Sharif on his 66th birthday and asked where he was. Sharif said he was in Lahore for granddaughter Mehrunissa’s wedding and invited Modi to drop by while overflying Pakistan on the return journey to Delhi.

To the surprise (and some consternation) of the Indian delegation and accompanying security detail, Modi gave in to the impulse and accepted the impromptu invitation. The spontaneity also pre-empted resistance from the instinctively suspicious foreign policy and security bureaucracy; and from noisy pressure groups and hawks in both countries. India is second to none in the ferocity of jingoistic journalism masquerading as patriotism.

We can but speculate on Modi’s motives to escape from the stifling protocol-driven diplomacy. Possibly he remembers the domestic political risks Sharif took in attending Modi’s inauguration on May 26, 2014, as a leap of faith against cynics and hard-line India-baiters in Pakistan. There has been little to show since then for that calculated political gamble. Modi’s Lahore stopover reciprocated the gesture.

Modi may also have wanted to demystify the bilateral relationship to emphasize that not all leaders’ meetings are summits with substantive outcomes. Informality has an important place in the theory and practice of modern diplomacy (part of what in the Oxford Handbook of Modern Diplomacy we call network diplomacy). Only out-of-the-box thinking can rescue moribund India-Pakistan relations to nudge them toward normalcy.

Modi was welcomed at Lahore airport by Sharif. The two hugged and walked hand in hand on the red carpet from the plane to a waiting helicopter to fly to Sharif’s home on the city’s outskirts. After returning to India, Modi tweeted his appreciation of being met and seen off at the airport by Sharif. He gave an Indian dress to the bride as a wedding present.

Both sides described Modi’s 150-minute stopover as a goodwill visit that would infuse a positive atmosphere in the region. For all the bonhomie on display Dec. 25, however, Modi remains on guard against cross-border terrorism. The military and intelligence services retain a stranglehold on Pakistan’s India policy. Sponsoring cross-border terrorism remains attractive as a low-cost, low-risk and high-impact option for the military-intelligence complex. In his speech to the Afghan Parliament earlier the same day, Modi was blunt: “Afghanistan will succeed only when terrorism no longer flows across the border, when nurseries and sanctuaries of terrorism are shut. Terror and violence cannot be the instrument to shape Afghanistan’s future or dictate the choices Afghans make.” As with Vajpayee’s visit, Modi extracted a promise of cooperation from Pakistan in the global fight against terrorism.

Vajpayee’s courageous efforts to engage with Sharif in 1999 were brutally sabotaged by his army chief, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, with a clandestine invasion across the de facto boundary to occupy the Kargil heights while Sharif was Vajpayee’s guest in Agra, site of the Taj Mahal and one of three Mughal forts in the subcontinent (the others are in Delhi and Lahore). Sharif’s efforts to sack Musharraf led to a military coup, the installation of Musharraf as president and the exile of Sharif until 2007. Musharraf was never held to account by the Western-dominated international community for his Kargil perfidy that wrecked the most promising green shoots of bilateral diplomacy in decades, nor for his military coup, and nor indeed for his double dealings in Afghanistan in running with the hare of jihadi insurgency while hunting with the hound of NATO counterinsurgency.

The core of the India-Pakistan dispute is Kashmir. One-third of it is under Pakistani and two-thirds under Indian control. If this was merely a territorial dispute, it would have been settled long ago. Its intractability arises from the clash of three interlocking nationalisms: ethnonationalism, secularism and Islam. Pakistan was hived off from India and founded on the conviction that the Muslims of the subcontinent can’t live together with Hindus. The existence of a Muslim-majority Kashmir as an Indian state thus negates the core identity of Pakistan. But India’s core identity includes secularism, and the loss of its only remaining Muslim-majority province to Pakistan would undermine the very foundation of modern India.

The de facto border between India and Pakistan in Kashmir has changed little over 70 years and is unlikely to shift significantly in the next 50. In today’s age, political frontiers are less consequential than the free or restricted flow of people, goods and services across them. The most sensible solution would be to convert the de facto into the juridical international border, liberalize and expand the bilateral movement of people and goods, and underpin each other’s and South Asia’s economic prosperity and political stability within a sustainable environment. Back-channel diplomacy during Manmohan Singh’s tenure had more or less resolved all outstanding issues, but the accord could not be consummated because by then Musharraf had run into serious domestic strife.

Can Modi succeed where Singh failed? In 2007, Singh had dared to dream of having breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore and dinner in Kabul. Modi has realized that dream, if in reverse order. For the sake of regional, global and nuclear peace, he must remain imaginatively engaged and vested in an improved relationship with India’s most nettlesome neighbor.

By unshackling himself from the fetters of Cabinet decision-making, Modi did what only leaders can do but not enough do so around the world: take calculated risks in the cause of good neighborly relations instead of perpetually fearing being outflanked by political opponents. He will be able to claim credit for any major improvement in relations with Pakistan but also have more space to institute tough measures if the dialogue falters or another major terrorist attack is mounted from a base in Pakistan. If Modi can emulate the bold and decisive style of leadership in domestic policy, expectations of him will climb once again to levels last seen in 2014.

Ramesh Thakur is professor in the Crawford School, Australian National University.

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