Before night could turn to day in Frankfurt, the prime minister and his entourage were woken up with the news of the unfolding terror attack in Jammu and Kashmir. It was not yet 6am. On the morning of his 81st birthday, just four hours before he was to take off for his last, legacy-searching trip to the US, he was now confronted with the gigantic risks of his foreign policy decision.
In his departure statement in India, Manmohan Singh had committed himself to a meeting with Pakistan’s recently-elected prime minister, Nawaz Sharif. The fact that it was left to him to make the announcement — which was buried cautiously in the last sentence — spoke to the extreme wariness of several others in his government. For days, they had skirted the issue of an India-Pakistan summit, partly fearful of a backlash, partly averse to the idea itself. The PM had finally bitten the political bullet but after the twin terror attacks in Jammu, it was all set to ricochet back at him.
A quick decision needed to be taken; a quicker public statement needed to be made. This was now less about diplomacy and more about politics. The BJP was breathing fire; TV channels back home were broadcasting images of death and despair and the Congress whilst backing him publicly, had been known to certainly not share his singular enthusiasm for dialogue with Pakistan. Especially, not in election season.
He finally chose to stay on track, branding the strikes as “barbaric” attacks by the “enemies of peace”, careful to not get drawn into whether he was blaming non-State actors across the border or elements of the Pakistan power establishment. For a man whose second term has been stamped by stagnation, silences, scams and self-doubt, it was a surprisingly bold decision. And as long as his meeting with Sharif is not burdened with the weight of tedious sentimentalism or excitable sensationalism, it is, on balance, the right decision as well.
Not because there isn’t plenty wrong with the UPA’s Pakistan policy — lurching inconsistently as it does from aggression to affection, but because three terrorists cannot be allowed to set the terms for a nation-State. And also because, in Sharif, is Pakistan’s first PM to challenge the might of his army chief. Opting out of the talks would only weaken him and in fact strengthen those who have configured terrorists to be strategic assets in their arsenal against India.
But now that the PM has taken the plunge, he has to avoid falling for the all-too-familiar trip-up joint-statement-itis. As someone who has reported on more India-Pakistan encounters than my memory has gigabytes, I would argue that it’s usually the greed for an outcome and the haste over a joint press consensus that ends up being the ruin of such meetings. From Agra to Sharm el-Sheikh; from Musharraf to Yousuf Gilani, it is the headline-hunting instinct of the subcontinent’s politicians that converts such meetings into melodramatic misadventures.
That and the unabashedly Punjabi propensity to over-emotionalise every engagement with either too much romance or disproportionate recrimination. This schizophrenia of the India-Pakistan equation is what has kept the relationship trapped in dysfunctional disequilibrium.
Nothing could be better for the health of the equation than some moments of dull, matter-of-factness. It may never get the attention of journalists but will go a long way in stabilising the love-hate volatility between the two countries.
In other words, while the PM may feel braver about taking a risk with foreign policy in his final few months in office, he cannot overload the Sharif meeting with his own long-standing and unfulfilled desire to make a lasting breakthrough with Pakistan.
Equally, it’s time to admit that mere photo-ops only trivialise the peace initiative, with their stale sense of déjà vu. Choosing to talk should not preclude a capacity for tough negotiations. In most India-Pakistan dialogues, bureaucrats waste too much time and energy on the commas and full stops of joint statements that change nothing between the two countries. Instead, it is important sometimes to meet without any announcement to book-end the conversation. And to keep meeting, till the fact of talking becomes so ordinary, that the media — and people — begin to find it boring and non-controversial. It is then that there may be some real chance for the beginnings of a peace process that is not constantly taken down by either politics or the weight of the past.
Finally, much as I back the dialogue process, no effort should take away from India’s military its freedom to manoeuvre as tactics and strategy on the ground demand. Last week, I spent five days at the Line of Control (LoC), travelling to forward posts. I spent a night right where the fence stops short of Pakistan. Under the night of a half-moon, I listened to the sounds of small-arms fire from across the border interrupting the deathly stillness of the dark. I watched the sky light up with the orange blaze of a mortar illumination meant to track down any possible intruder.
I spent hours browsing through the thermal images that are captured on a 24-hour basis, of every single movement on the other side — man or animal. I saw first-hand the life-threatening discipline of snipers who sometimes spent 12 hours crouched in one position in camouflage. I met countless villagers in border areas who testified to the recent surge in ceasefire violations. In mapping the LoC over hundreds of kilometres it became evident that this was a battle of nerves and it was imperative to end the growing disconnect between the political establishment and the soldier.
Come Sunday, and the PM will need to make a much-hyped summit more realistic than rhetorical, more pragmatic than passionate. In that, may lie actual courage.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, NDTV
The views expressed by the author are personal