Pakistan has just had a brilliant week in diplomacy. After seeing high-level talks called off twice over differences about interacting with Kashmiri separatists, New Delhi got back to the negotiating table — via NSA talks in Bangkok followed by the visit of external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj to Islamabad. India agreed to mention ‘Jammu and Kashmir’ in two joint statements and both countries are back to a full scope ‘comprehensive bilateral dialogue’. There is no greater dose of dopamine for Islamabad in foreign affairs than moments of symbolic parity with India. It got plenty of that last week and even test-fired a nuclear-capable missile that can reach far-flung Indian cities like Chennai, to prove the point — and celebrate.
India is, meanwhile, wondering about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s turnaround. Few really know, but several theories are circulating. Some say he was chastened by the defeat in Bihar; he realises that the anti-Pakistan card is not working domestically and hence it is time to be seen as more constructive, internationally. He figured he cannot avoid Pakistan next year with the T20 World Cup in India and the Saarc summit in Islamabad and decided to have another go at dialogue. Some suggest that the breakdown was owing to diplomatic cock-ups in the first place; Modi himself was always keen on good ties and now is a good time to restart. Others attribute to his friend Barack Obama, who is concerned that India-Pakistan tensions will complicate the US’ endgame in Afghanistan. Modi may be alert to the implications of closer China-Pakistan relations as Beijing tries to remake geography through grand infrastructure projects.
It is possible that Modi was motivated by all these; it does not matter why now — he has created diplomatic facts that he needs to live with, which create both problems and opportunities. The one big obstacle he has is that there is not a single big issue that he can transact quickly with Pakistan. Neither side sees eye to eye on terrorism; Islamabad wants a deal on Siachen, which New Delhi demurs about and the BJP is not interested in the four-point formula on Kashmir which was discussed during the UPA years — while enhanced trade will take time to materialise.
There is, thus, the risk of repeating the UPA’s spectacle of conducting frequent talks that do not yield satisfying outcomes. Modi will find himself caught between the need to participate in a process to burnish his credentials internationally while being prevented domestically from achieving big outcomes.
One way out is for him configure dialogue with Pakistan in his own mind not as an end in itself but as a project to moderate the BJP internally, which is critical if he is serious about being a moderniser and a statesman. He has already taken the first stab at that by announcing dialogue suddenly. His hardline Hindu nationalist followers on social media and hot-headed TV news anchors — who have been building up anti-Pakistan sentiment in India and making the PM risk-averse so far — do not quite know how to react at the moment. The idea now should be to sustain the stupor of his bhakts and socialise them to the imperatives of statecraft through an active India-Pakistan process.
This will help Modi domestically — if he so wishes — as he has struggled to publicly take on his Sangh parivar allies as they stoke anti-minority sentiment, target liberals and pursue aggressive anti-beef campaigns. Anti-Pakistan discourse in the public sphere is often generated with Indian Muslims in mind to stigmatize them in society. Sustained dialogue with Pakistan can help address this as it starves the bhakts a bit of the oxygen that strained ties offered them so far. The bhakts can now pursue an anti-Muslim agenda only with the full knowledge that it embarrasses the PM they admire. A sustained dialogue thus enforces restraint within the Hindu nationalist firmament without the PM having to attack his own cohort (or seem like distancing himself from them).
Of course, political outcomes are never so neat. Public opinion is fickle, attitudes hardened over time do not dissolve easily. Opportunistic criticism from the Congress or inadequate outcomes will test the patience of Modi and his supporters. Modi will need to either have a robust pro-dialogue narrative or generate events that create one subliminally. He needs to get the liberals on his side on Pakistan who are otherwise making life difficult for him by ‘spoiling’ his image abroad. One way is to enhance trade, play cricket, push people-to-people ties and enable more exchange visits among the youth, artists and the policy community. Both countries must urgently aim to acquaint their societies with the other side to counter xenophobia. Allowing more journalists to be posted as correspondents will be a useful start.
These may not be enough. Modi needs to focus public minds on the prospect of resolving a big issue. Paying attention to Kashmir will be beneficial. Political dialogue with separatists is off the table, but he can do more to ease State pressure on Kashmiri youth and dissenting political activity, and nudge the army on giving up land and draconian security legislation. These can help create the conditions for a future deal with Pakistan.
Historically, terrorist attacks have happened when bilateral ties are on the upswing. Modi’s primary aim is to use the dialogue with Pakistan to contain the fallout from the next attack, so India can stay focused on bigger economic goals and strategic threats. His ability to achieve that is, in part, determined by the domestic climate he nurtures. He has taken the tough decision of starting dialogue and should stick with it despite challenges ahead.