About two months ago I met an influential, high-ranking representative of the Pakistan government in Islamabad who told me that Masood Azhar, the Jaish-e-Mohammed chief and the terrorist wanted by India for the attack on the Pathankot air base was “missing.” I was startled to hear this because up until now the TV channels on both sides of the border had been full of reports on the so-called “protective custody” of Azhar and whether this might mark a change in Pakistan’s habitual denialism in the aftermath of terror attacks. Now somebody in the know was insistent that Azhar was “on the run, possibly even in Afghanistan”.
It was immaterial whether this information was correct or not — perhaps Azhar was just down the road in an ISI safe house as the murmurs went. What was important was that this source in the Pakistan government was disclosing what India was likely told be told when our investigators asked for access to the Jaish supremo. In other words — well before Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit declared the peace process “suspended” — it was clear that there was never going to be any meeting between the National Investigating Agency (NIA) and the cleric released from jail in 1999 in exchange for the hijacked passengers of IC-814.
But at the time it appeared as if the contours of a compromise between Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistani military had taken shape; Azhar was no-go territory, but a case would be registered and some middle-ranking Jaish operatives would be detained. The belief was that this would give Sharif and Narendra Modi the space they needed to ask their foreign secretaries to meet. Sharif had personally given Modi his word that an FIR would be registered and there would be none of the usual naysaying.
So what happened suddenly? Why did sections of the Pakistan media report that their investigators had claimed the attacks were “staged” by India to “malign” them? The dissonance with their own PM’s statement was striking. On January 13, the Sharif PMO issued a formal statement that spoke of the “considerable progress” that had been made in the Pathankot investigation and confirmed that “several individuals” of the Jaish had been “apprehended.” If the recent media reports are true why would the Pakistan probe team take a line so different from the government that sent them to India in the first place?
Similarly Basit’s contentious comments are at variance with the initial messaging of the Sharif government. Especially given the fact that it was at the prime ministerial level — both Sharif and Modi — that the decision to send the Pakistani joint investigation team was eventually sealed. And finally that a press conference on spying allegations was held by Pakistan’s information and broadcasting minister on the exact same day that the investigators were interrogating witnesses in Pathankot spoke of the mounting contradictions of their response.
Clearly caught on the backfoot, New Delhi has now been left to analyse whether Sharif changed his mind, set them up or has been squeezed into a tight, immovable corner by the Pakistani Deep State. Many Pakistanis believe the latter to be accurate — there are even whispers that the ‘spy’ tapes (videotaped testimonial of the man Pakistan claims is an Indian spy) were released by Sharif to shield himself from the blowback within for being too soft on India. Pakistan’s army is clearly running the country’s foreign policy and Sharif has most likely been diminished further for his attempts at reconciliation with India.
Whether the impasse is a deliberate dupe or the inevitable denouement to the drama of dealing with the dysfunctional civilian-military relationship in Pakistan is irrelevant. Neither scenario builds in an obvious next step for Modi’s Pakistan Doctrine. While Modi is hardly the first Indian leader to confront the wheels within wheels that keep Pakistan moving — think the multiple dead-end dossiers prepared by the Congress government post 26/11 — he has made his own job that much tougher because of the nationalism test his party has set for everyone else.
Ironically Modi’s experiments with Pakistan — the invite for the swearing-in, the unannounced Lahore visit, the secret back channels have been his boldest policy gambit in two years — much braver, much riskier than — let’s say — his relatively cautious approach to economic reforms. But in a (self-generated) environment where ‘Bharat mata ki jai’ is the mandatory benchmark for patriotism and nationalism has replaced (or camouflaged) Hindutva as the BJP mantra, the party is facing the heat from the Opposition for allowing an ISI officer as part of the probe team to visit an Indian military facility. That Pakistan has now snubbed the possibility of Indians getting reciprocal access makes it politically impossible for Modi to move ahead with the same flexibility.
This is not to say that as intractable an equation as India and Pakistan should be navigated by the rabble-rousing of the kind we have seen from Opposition this past week. But in this case the BJP has tripped on its own rhetoric and overstatement. In the binaries it has created on the national vs. anti-national debate, it has now been left in a piquant and embarrassing dilemma on two counts. The first is the irony of the national flag being at the centre of the volatile debate at NIT, Srinagar, where students were beaten by the local police in the same week as the new PDP-BJP government was sworn in. And the second of course is the public snubbing by Pakistan. Normally diplomacy is all about creating space for nations to pull back from the brink and start all over again. But in this instance, the patriot games — (a competitive playground for all major political parties) — has ensured that the long marathon called — Peace — cannot even be attempted at the moment. Bad Knees? Bad News.
Barkha Dutt is consulting editor, NDTV, and founding member, Ideas Collective
The views expressed are personal