Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Kozhikode speech was salutary amid the cries for war after the militant attack in Kashmir’s Uri. But to call his outreach to the people of Pakistan an innovative first would be an overstatement.
For years now, our bilateral engagements with the oft-hostile neighbour have had to them a people-to-people orientation. Barring sporadic disruptions, confidence building measures (CBMs) that include rail and road connectivity have remained in place through the worst of times.
The diplomatic objective that guided the policy was part altruistic, part pragmatic. From the Indian standpoint, permitting visitors from across the border served the dual purpose of connecting families divided by Partition, which, by itself, was an effective counter to Islamabad’s propaganda on the state of our minorities. The approach was particularly useful in the years succeeding the Babri Masjid dispute and the post-Godhra violence in Gujarat.
In distinguishing the people of Pakistan from its civil-military establishment that waged three wars with us, Modi seemed to drawn from the institutional memory of the office he holds. The reality is that the average urban Pakistani always had a sneaking admiration for India’s growth story and its adherence to democracy that’s only a dream half-realised beyond Wagah.
The PM stoked that sentiment by exhorting them to a creative competition to fight unemployment, illiteracy and poverty that deny the sub-continent’s dispossessed the life they deserve. The message wasn’t dissimilar when, during the UPA regime, then foreign secretary Shyam Sharan reasoned in a major policy lecture that India’s economy wasn’t a threat but an opportunity for its neighbours.
I remember having quizzed Nawaz Sharif on it during a visit to Lahore. Then in the Opposition, he had no qualms agreeing; stable bilateral relations, he said, would help generate jobs as Pakistan could attract FDI in its manufacturing sector citing geographical proximity to the huge Indian market.
It’s another matter that his business instincts had him so argue. He’s guided now by his survival instincts amid charges of graft and profligacy.
In fact, advocacy of a flexible Indian visa regime for Pakistanis dates back to the late 1970s when AB Vajpayee was Morarji Desai’s foreign minister. It was also an integral part of a doctrine named after former Premier Inder Gujral and driven by the idea of “non-reciprocal magnanimity” towards smaller neighbours.
Even the back channel India-Pakistan talks for an out of the box resolution of Kashmir were all about meeting popular aspirations through CBMs aided by an institutional framework facilitating easy cross-LoC interactivity and movement. The initiative that represented a paradigm shift --from new borders to no borders-- got aborted when domestic discord in Pakistan pulled Pervez Musharraf down from his mighty pedestal.
During one hopeful phase in our bilateral ties, a top politician-diplomat gave me a deeper insight to the value of CBMs. Kashmir, he argued, cannot be resolved through a pact or a treaty, involve as it does the stakeholders’ national pride. Its resolution has to be through consistent efforts to give the people of Kashmir a way of life they want --on either side of the Line of Control.
But a pre-requisite for that is mutual trust and peace that elude the estranged neighbours. In the historical context of the 1971 Bangladesh war, the PM’s overt support for Baloch nationalists would be seen as another bid to dismember Pakistan--by its people and the ruling class adept at demonising India.