This week, I have been called both a ‘Paki-lover’ and a ‘war-mongering’ jingoist.
The bizarre contradiction of those labels would be a moment of hilarity if it were not for the fact that it reinforced how difficult it has become to have a complex, nuanced debate about the state of affairs between the two countries.
How you view the recent melt-down in relations between India and Pakistan is apparently the newest patriotism test.
These days, if you ask even half a sceptical question about whether the government’s fixed positions are sustainable in a relationship that is deeply unpredictable, complicated, schizophrenic and underlined by hostility — you are accused of treachery.
Conversely, friends and professional acquaintances across the border expect you to be a peacenik proponent of dialogue-at-all-costs whether their Deep State’s guns kill police officers, civilians or little children. Pakistan’s ‘Phantom’ paradox is precisely that it is able to shut down a movie and not a terrorist — and that too because the terrorist (Hafiz Saeed) so demanded.
In the space between the ‘red-lines’ are the shades of grey that maximal positions, in both countries, are colour-blind too.
To start with let me surprise my right-wing friends and say I am glad that the scheduled talks between the two National Security Advisors were called off. Not because I do not support a process of engagement between the countries — I do —but because the public build-up to the meet was already so theatrical and acrimonious that it would have been pointless. There is no way Ajit Doval and Sartaj Aziz could have got any real business done in Delhi.
That brings me to a ‘red line’ I wish the Modi government would draw when it comes to Pakistan — secrecy and discretion. The Punjabi flamboyance wired into the relationship is a cultural legacy issue of the past; why doesn’t the Doval doctrine dispense with it? Let me explain what I mean.
For too long — and I say this as a reporter who has covered every single meet between the two countries unfailingly for 20 years — India Pakistan talks have been like a bad version of a Karan Johar film. On both sides there is first firmly stated suspicion and cynicism; then there is over-stated friendliness and yaari-dosti and then there is the craftsmanship duel over (an entirely dispensable) joint statement, that as both Sharm el-Sheikh and Ufa have shown can cause more confusion than clarity.
All of this plays out in the full gaze of cameras — the handshake, the breakdown, the patch-up, the breakdown — making movies seem less melodramatic than the world of diplomacy.
Clearly on both sides, the need to publicise what should remain unknown to the media springs from domestic political compulsions or the need to illustrate, in equal measure, both strength and statesmanship. But it usually places an inordinate pressure even on leaders who are willing to take a risk; it also shrinks their space for manoeuvrability. This is how the contradictions begin.
The reason Narendra Modi’s new Pakistan policy is the subject of such debate is not just because it is a break from a very different Vajpayee philosophy, but because, like every other prime minister before him he has had to confront the difficulty of any permanent decisions when it comes to Pakistan.
So, before you discuss the merits of the government’s no-go-areas, the question arises, can he —and will he stick to them?
This time, by refusing to compromise on the meeting between the Kashmiri separatists and the Pakistani delegation — Modi may have signaled that he will remain steadfast on his decision. But it’s just as true that the government has blurred its own red lines several times over the past year when it first made the call to make the Hurriyat a deal-breaker. After the foreign secretary talks were called off on the same grounds last year New Delhi was surprised to find that it was left with the job of breaking the impasse.
And so followed the foreign secretary’s ‘Saarc yatra’, widely believed to be a clever camouflage for re-booting the relationship. Even the meeting in Ufa was called at India’s initiative. If Pakistan’s meeting with Kashmiri separatists was a deal-breaker why did we seek talks with them without that stand-off having been resolved?
If the Pakistanis reneged on an assurance that they would find a way around the Hurriyat question once they returned home from Ufa and faced pressure from their Army — entirely likely — why does the government not share those bits of the conversation?
If India’s Ufa reach-out was prompted by a calculation that a beleaguered Nawaz Sharif’s hand needed to be strengthened vis-à-vis the military, how have we achieved that with the collapse of the dialogue?
If India’s decision is to rewrite the terms of engagement with Pakistan then we must be prepared to sit out long periods of no visible contact. Some of India’s new ideas were interesting, even innovative — regular contact between the NSAs (Sartaj Aziz says he was coming with the proposal for a hotline) and meetings between the director generals of military operations on both sides among them. But if the basic ground rules have not been agreed to by both sides, all of these are likely to be non-starters.
In the meantime there is the small unintended ironic consequence of the Hurriyat. Some of us report on Kashmir with an obsessive interest so it doesn’t apply to us, but, broadly speaking, when was the last time you saw Shabir Shah or Yasin Malik in the news? It’s my hunch that the contemporary generation of young Indians may not even know who they are, so faded had their headlines become. India may have sent a strong message to Pakistan but in the domestic context of Jammu and Kashmir, did the redlines resurrect them from the political graveyard of the past?
(Barkha Dutt is consulting editor, NDTV, and founding member, Ideas Collective. The views expressed by the author are personal)