Many shades of India’s Pak policy : The Tribune India

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Many shades of India’s Pak policy

This poll season, BJP has tried to lure Congress to extensively react to its charges on nationalism

Many shades of India’s Pak policy

OUTREACH: PM Modi tried to save the dialogue process even after the Pathankot airbase terror attack. Tribune photo

Vivek Katju

Former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs

PRIME Minister Narendra Modi recently seized upon remarks made by octogenarian politician and former diplomat Mani Shankar Aiyar to try to show that the Congress had always pursued a timid, if not cowardly, policy on Pakistan. Aiyar’s comments were extracted from an 83-minute-long interview, which he gave last month to a video channel. In the interview, he expansively dwelt on his views on the India-Pakistan relations and was critical of the Modi government’s approach to Pakistan. Aiyar could have avoided a direct reference to strategic weapons. That would have possibly not given PM Modi political ammunition and avoided embarrassment to the Congress. But then Aiyar would not be Aiyar if he didn’t commit such gaffes.

What put the ties in deep freeze was the Pulwama terror attack of February 2019 and the constitutional changes in J&K in August that year.

Without naming Aiyar, Modi said at an election rally in Odisha on May 11 that ‘Congress people’ were seeking to weaken the country’s self-confidence by creating fear about Pakistani nuclear weapons. He asserted that those who talked about Pakistan possessing atom bombs were unaware that it did not have the capacity to ‘handle’ them and wished to sell them, but their quality was such that no one wanted to purchase them. Modi, thereafter, trained his guns on the Congress’ ‘weak’ approach to Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. Taking their cue from Modi, other BJP leaders criticised the Congress for always being soft on Pakistan. On its part, the Congress distanced itself from Aiyar’s remarks. Its spokesperson, Pawan Khera, said Aiyar did not ‘speak’ for the Congress in ‘any capacity whatsoever’. He went on to recall that Pakistan had been dismembered in December 1971. This was an obvious reference to then PM Indira Gandhi’s handling of the war which Pakistan had thrust upon India after its army started a genocide in what was then East Pakistan. Khera also referred to India’s ‘peaceful nuclear explosion’ of 1974, undertaken during Indira’s rule.

Since the first phase of elections on April 19, the BJP has attempted to lure the Congress to extensively react to its charges on nationalism. The reference to the remarks made by Aiyar, who has no current political relevance, again illustrates this point. However, the Congress has largely and perhaps wisely skirted the issue. Its top leaders have refused to engage Modi on India’s Pakistan policy or even on the issue of terrorism. They have stuck to highlighting economic matters such as unemployment and growing disparity between the rich and the poor. They have also focused on the ‘threat’ to the Constitution if the BJP retains power.

It is legitimate for the BJP to rake up the Congress’ approach to Pakistan during the elections. It is equally up to the Congress to respond to the BJP’s allegations in the manner it wishes to. This is part of the thrust and parry of electioneering. However, even here, it is highly desirable that top political leaders, whether in the government or outside, exercise responsibility and restraint when it comes to strategic issues. These matters are much too sensitive to be made part of the rough and tumble of campaigning. Indeed, it is a matter of record that political leaders, irrespective of their party affiliations, have contributed in their own ways to India’s security, including through the development of the country’s strategic assets. This aspect should not be forgotten in the heat of election campaigns.

As for Aiyar, he has long been an advocate of an uninterrupted dialogue between India and Pakistan. What those who believe in this approach overlook is that no Indian government was able to politically sustain a bilateral dialogue process following an unacceptable Pakistan-linked terror attack. Hence, the view that terror and talks cannot go together is correct. In the interview and in a newspaper article after the controversy erupted, Aiyar’s memory has been selective on Modi’s Pakistan policy. Indeed, it can be argued that Modi took political risks in pursuing a policy of engagement with Pakistan. Modi and his then counterpart Nawaz Sharif decided during their meeting in July 2015 in Ufa, Russia, on the sidelines of the SCO summit that their National Security Advisors (NSAs) would meet to discuss terrorism and related issues. The Ufa joint statement did not specifically mention the J&K issue. Pakistani Generals reacted with fury. Over the next few months, Modi began to show flexibility and allowed the statement to be set aside because he let the NSAs, accompanied by the Foreign Secretaries, meet in Bangkok in December to discuss a range of issues, including the resumption of the India-Pakistan dialogue.

Two days after the Bangkok meeting, then External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj went to Islamabad for a multilateral meeting on Afghanistan. On its sidelines, Swaraj and her Pakistani counterpart Sartaj Aziz agreed to begin the full bilateral dialogue process, which they called the Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue. Modi’s brief visit to Lahore came after these two meetings. However, the Pakistani Generals did not wish this engagement to move ahead and engineered the Pathankot airbase terror attack in January 2016. Yet, Modi tried to save the dialogue process. He went to the extent of allowing a Pakistani team, which included an ISI officer, to visit India, particularly the Pathankot airbase. It is only after the Uri terror attack of September 2016 that Modi’s approach changed. Yet, he did not break ties. Indeed, with Imran Khan becoming Pakistan’s Prime Minister in 2018, there was talk of a thaw in the bilateral relationship.

What put the ties in deep freeze was the Pulwama terror attack of February 2019 and the constitutional changes in J&K in August that year. Indeed, Pakistan downgraded ties with India after the changes. It has since then indicated that a dialogue process cannot begin until India reverses the J&K decisions. Hence, Aiyar would do well to dwell on the irrationality of Pakistan’s current India approach, but that he will never do.

#BJP #Congress #Narendra Modi #Pakistan

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