G R O U N D   Z E R O

ground zero
A bold move, but will it pay dividends?
Raj Chengappa

Raj ChengappaEven before Narendra Modi assumes office tomorrow evening, the Prime Minister-designate has shown he is capable of bold and novel moves, which have caught the imagination of the region if not the world. By extending an invitation to leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) nations, including Pakistan, to attend his swearing-in ceremony, Modi has sent several important messages.

For one, he has sent a clear signal that as Prime Minister he will directly be involved in guiding Indiaís foreign policy even if he appoints an External Affairs Minister. The other indication is that South Asia will be his priority and he is willing to engage with neighbours, including Pakistan.

Narendra Modi
Narendra Modi

Nawaz Sharif
Nawaz Sharif

Seven of the eight leaders, including Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, for whom invitations had been sent for the ceremony have accepted it. The only exception is Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who is sending the Speaker of Parliament to represent her as she would be on an official tour of Japan. That so many key leaders of the region are coming is a measure of just how seriously they view the ascendancy of Modi.

Modi is unlikely to have much time for a detailed bilateral discussion with any of the leaders since most of the meetings would be for around half an hour. However brief these meetings might be, they are likely to set the tone for future interactions. For in foreign policy there is nothing more important than leaders meeting face to face and gauging each otherís style, body language and command over the issues at hand. Often first impressions are lasting ones, which could alter the course of relations between two countries.

Modiís interaction with Sharif would be the most watched. Sharif hasnít come to India since 1991, when as PM he attended the funeral of Rajiv Gandhi. This is Sharifís third stint as PM and in each of his previous two tenures relations with India experienced a roller-coaster ride. In Sharifís first stint between 1990 and 1993, PV Narasimha Rao was the Prime Minister, and despite efforts to hold secretary-level talks to improve ties a Pakistan-abetted insurgency in Kashmir negated all efforts.

During his second tenure between 1997 and 1999, Sharif along with Atal Behari Vajpayee signed the historic Lahore agreement in February 1999 after the Indian PM crossed the Wagah border in a friendship bus. Soon after, Pakistan betrayed India by starting intrusions in the Kargil sector, which we successfully repulsed. Relations between the two countries then went into a tailspin.

During the UPA governmentís first tenure, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf made substantial progress, particularly in the opening up of trade between the two Kashmirs and a structured dialogue on all key issues. Just when a breakthrough seemed imminent, Musharraf ran into domestic turmoil and was ousted from power. Relations turned frosty again after the 2008 Mumbai attacks with a complicit Pakistan unwilling to bring the perpetrators to book.

When Sharif came to power for the third time in June 2013 he promised that improving relations with India was his top priority and he would pick up the threads from the 1999 Lahore agreement. But Sharif flattered only to deceive, with ceasefire violations on the LoC escalating. Nor did he grant India the Most Favoured Nation status to improve trade relations. Manmohanís first meeting with Sharif in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September the same year saw the Indian PM deliver a stern message to his counterpart to restore tranquillity on the LoC and curb terror.

The BJP, which had criticised Manmohan for being soft on Pakistan, is hard put to explain the rationale for Modi to invite Sharif when LoC violations continue to this day. If Manmohan had made such a gesture the party would have dubbed him a wimp. But such is the aura around Modiís ascension that Sharif coming for the swearing-in ceremony is being hailed as a diplomatic coup.

In my opinion, Modi did the right thing by deciding to engage in a dialogue with Sharif. There are limitations in the initiative and Modi must know them. Despite a year into his third term, Sharif is still to gain full control of domestic affairs. There are signs that differences have developed between the new Army chief and him on how to tackle extremists that have let loose a wave of terror strikes in Pakistan. The Pakistan economy continues to grow at a desultory pace.

So when Modi meets Sharif he could utilise the opportunity to lay down a few ground rules for a more productive engagement. These could be that Sharif must expedite the trial of the Mumbai attackers and have them punished. That the LoC violations should stop if a meaningful dialogue process is to be resumed. And that in Afghanistan, where an important transition in government is underway, Pakistan must cooperate with India to ensure its economic development rather than engage in a conflict.

Another historic opportunity presents itself for the two countries. Too many have been frittered away in the past. Now is the time for Modi and Sharif to seize the moment and make history. 





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