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PM Modi’s Lahore visit: Symbolism has use in complex diplomacy

Symbolism in diplomacy is important when the relationship is complex and the road ahead difficult to negotiate. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surprise visit to Pakistan has to be seen in that light.

india Updated: Dec 25, 2015 22:16 IST
Vinod Sharma
Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves from the plane after meeting with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif in Lahore.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves from the plane after meeting with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif in Lahore.(REUTERS)

Symbolism in diplomacy is important when the relationship is complex and the road ahead difficult to negotiate. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surprise visit to Pakistan has to be seen in that light, and the fact that he landed in Lahore from Kabul where India and Pakistan have worked at cross-purposes since the departure of the Soviet troops in the late 1980s.

The behind-the-scenes dynamics, if there were any, would in the coming days afford a deeper look into Modi’s gamble to drop by in Lahore on Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s birthday. Cynics may well prove to be right. But in immediate terms the initiative could create an atmosphere supportive of talks between the national security advisers and foreign secretaries.

Symbolism goes a fair way in creating popular support, which becomes indispensable for a dialogue process fraught with political risk-taking and compromises. Reassuring spectacles help defuse tensions and reduce distrust.

Read: India, Pak agree to carry forward dialogue as Modi meets Sharif

But for the climate built by the 2003 visit of an all-party delegation of Indian MPs to Pakistan, the January 6, 2004 joint statement under Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Pervez Musharraf’s watch wouldn’t have been possible on the sidelines of the SAARC Summit in Islamabad. It’s a matter of history that the accord secured border peace for a good number of years and unprecedented impetus for back channel talks.

Vajpayee didn’t stop at that. He ignored opposition from within his government to allow the April-March 2004 India -Pakistan cricket series that built upon the positive ambience created by the January 6 Islamabad statement. The cricket series ran parallel to the 2004 poll campaign. But the BJP veteran took the risk.

All that happened after the Kargil setback destroyed the gains of Vajpayee’s hugely symbolic bus-ride to Lahore in the winter of 1999. One can only hope that Modi is third time lucky — like his venerated predecessor who also faced disappointment at Agra — after the bonhomie over Sharif’s presence at his swearing-in and the Ufa entente that didn’t last.

The picture is still hazy. But one can’t help but link Modi’s Lahore visit with his address earlier on Friday to the Afghan Parliament. While calling for unity between India, Iran and Pakistan in the interest of Afghanistan, he hoped that Pakistan would be a “bridge” between Afghanistan, South Asia and beyond.

Now that’s the kind of substance, if it ever materialises, that can make his Lahore visit truly historic. Easier said than done. But worth a try!

Read: Kabul to Delhi via Lahore: Modi realises Manmohan’s dream

Read: Modi arranged surprise visit at last minute over phone: Pak official