On Friday morning, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted that he had spoken to all Saarc leaders, whose countries were all set to participate in the upcoming cricket world cup to wish them well. This included, among others, Pakistan's PM Nawaz Sharif. Modi also announced that the new foreign secretary, S Jaishankar, would head out on a Saarc yatra to strengthen ties.
Using a thread that ties South Asia together, Modi has astutely effected a policy course correction in the one area where the government had faltered in an otherwise successful foreign policy run – ties with Islamabad. Modi's announcement also allows the foreign policy establishment to deepen, consolidate and build ties with the other countries in the region, and gives an opportunity to Jaishankar to get first-hand knowledge of the current events in the neighbourhood. It is, yet again, a surprise diplomatic stroke – something that has come to be increasingly associated with Modi.
Take Pakistan first. Do recall that India had called off the foreign secretary level talks after objecting to Pakistan high commissioner Abdul Basit’s meetings with Kashmiri separatist leaders.
This was widely criticised by those who know the Delhi-Islamabad dynamic well, for it was a reversal of the nuanced policy India had followed so far – of recognising that Pakistan’s power structure is heterogeneous; that it was in India’s interest to engage and strengthen the civilian leadership; and cancelling talks would weaken the Sharif government further vis a vis the military establishment as he would have little space to defend his own outreach to India.
Such a snub, after he made the effort of coming for Modi’s swearing in, was both myopic and in bad taste. The second problem was India had raised the bar too high, and unnecessarily – Pakistani officials had been meeting the Hurriyat leadership for a long time; and the Hurriyat was increasingly becoming irrelevant in Kashmir itself. India’s covert agencies had a pretty thick relationship with the Hurriyat and it posed little threat. What was the need, many argued, to raise the bar so high?
The government however was adamant. Officials argued that Pakistan needed to be told that it could not be ‘business as usual’; that it was time to draw a new ‘red-line’ on Kashmir; that India should not have any delusions that it can shape or influence balance of power in Pakistan and given how weak Sharif was, it made little sense to engage with him at the moment. Another unstated calculation for the government was the upcoming Jammu and Kashmir election, where BJP was hoping to do well, especially in Jammu where anti-Pakistan rhetoric works well.
The consequences of the decision followed. There were increased tensions and firing on both the Line of Control and the international border. At UN, Pakistan raised the issue of plebiscite once again. There was a distinct chill at Saarc, where Pakistan first tried to lobby for upgrading China’s status from an observer to a dialogue partner, and then attempted to block multilateral agreements. Modi and Sharif spoke briefly, but did not have a proper bilateral meeting.
In the past month, there has been speculation that the tide may be turning. Domestically, the J-K assembly election was out of the way. It was a democratic success, and BJP had achieved its political aim partly by becoming a key stakeholder in whatever power structure emerged in Srinagar. Within Pakistan, after the Peshawar attacks, there was a turn in public mood and greater pressure on the establishment to crack down on terrorists. Modi reached out to Sharif.
A Pakistan court’s bail to a key Mumbai attack accused, Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, soon after, however, did not help matters – but the government in Pakistan did appeal against the order. There have been some key track 2 interlocutors who have visited Delhi, particularly former Pakistan NSA Mahmud Durrani. He met NSA Ajit Doval, to convey that Pakistan is serious about tackling terrorism and said publicly that Modi will engage with Pakistan, but in his own way. Earlier this week, Pakistan released 173 Indian prisoners, and on Thursday, Jaishankar met Basit.
There were signs of an emerging thaw. But it was unclear how would dialogue be resumed and who would take the initiative.
Modi, dramatically, signaled this thaw with his phone conversation with Sharif on Friday morning. They are learnt to have discussed cricket at some length, but the subtext was hard to miss. Sharif was furious with Modi for his betrayal in cancelling FS talks; the warmth that marked their meeting last May during the former’s swearing-in ceremony had all but dissipated. It would be naïve to read too much into the light conversation today, but the dynamics had improved.
By weaving in Pakistan with the rest of the region and by signalling willingness for the Indian side to travel to Islamabad, Modi took care of the political awkwardness and difficulties he may have encountered from his own base for reaching out to Islamabad after raising the stakes. It is not clear whether the FS visit - when it happens - will lead to resumption of the composite dialogue. But at least the two sides will talk. This was a much needed course correction.
The other significant element of Friday's diplomatic development is that Jaishankar will get to know the region well. Besides serving in Colombo sometime back, he does not have much experience of the immediate neighbourhood - a fact that the new FS is acutely conscious of. And each neighbour is confronting major difficulties.
Nepal is the middle of a constitutional deadlock and Modi's advice to Nepal's parties to promulgate a constitution through consensus rather than through a majority numbers game has gone unheeded. It will be useful for Jaishankar to assess ground dynamics in Kathmandu. In Dhaka, political violence between the government and opposition had grown and the FS can understand the strength and vulnerabilities of the friendly Awami League government.
On the bilateral front, Modi has signalled that the government would soon get the Land Boundary Agreement ratified in Parliament. Afghanistan is a growing concern for India - not just because of the US drawdown - but because unlike his predecessor Ashraf Ghani's diplomatic focus is in improving ties with Pakistan and refraining from taking any steps that would make Islamabad jittery. How this rebalancing would affect India's presence in Kabul is an important variable which Jaishankar can judge.
With his phone calls to Saarc leaders, Modi has shown yet again that his heart is in improving ties with the neighbourhood; he has made amends for a policy lapse on Pakistan; and he has created a fresh opportunity to carve out South Asian solidarity.