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Kartarpur exposes a lack of coherence in India’s Pakistan policy, writes Barkha Dutt

This is not to say that Pakistan speaks in one voice or is consistent in its India policy. When Shah Mehmood Qureshi met us in Islamabad, he categorically said: “This is no googly” to emphasise the sincerity of its intentions. A day later at a public function, he did a complete u-turn and boasted that his government had bowled a googly that compelled India to send two ministers to Pakistan.

columns Updated: Dec 01, 2018 10:28 IST
Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan shakes hands with cricketer-turned politician Navjot Singh Sidhu during ground breaking ceremony for Kartarpur corridor in Pakistan's Kartarpur, November 28, 2018(PTI)

When I met Harsimrat Kaur Badal at Kartarpur she seemed genuinely overcome. “I have no words,” she told me, “there is too much emotion.” As a Punjabi whose family migrated from Sialkot during Partition, I can relate to the raw sentiment that violent displacement can leave in the collective response of a community. That she choked up with tears at the place where Guru Nanak spent his last years was very moving.

But the problem is this: while she stood in the Pakistani border village and invoked Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s analogy of the fall of the Berlin Wall to indicate how the widening gulf in the Indo-Pak relationship could be bridged, foreign minister Sushma Swaraj simultaneously spoke in Delhi to dispel any such notion. While Badal went on record to talk about how Guru Nanak’s message was the perfect way to make a fresh beginning, Swaraj underlined how Kartarpur could not be linked to any resumption of the larger dialogue process.

There was a similar dissonance in the statements of the Congress. While Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh rejected Pakistan’s invitation to be in attendance for the ceremonial opening of the corridor, his cabinet colleague Navjot Singh Sidhu walked away with the lion’s share of the attention in Pakistan. Everywhere we went -- I was among 22 Indian journalists invited by the Pakistan government to report on the developments -- Sidhu was feted like some sort of folk hero . His panache for pithy one liners, a throw back to his years on television, made him a ratings hit. Some Pakistanis joked that there was more of Sidhu on their TV channels in the last few days than their own prime minister. The Sikh devotees I met spoke of how it was the Maharaja of Patiala that restored Kartarpur Sahib and they wished Captain Amarinder Singh had been present to further the legacy of his family.

Captain has expressed concerns about renewed Khalistani extremism and the Modi government has pointed out the continued impunity with which Hafiz Saeed and Masood Azhar are able to operate in Pakistan. These are legitimate apprehensions. But then it was the prime minister who first used the metaphor of the Berlin Wall for the Kartarpur corridor -- immediately elevating the peace initiative to much higher stratosphere. The BJP can hardly brand Sidhu as an anti-national when it sends two Union ministers to represent India at the inauguration in Pakistan -- and who, taking their cues from him, frame the moment as a possible kickstart for a stalled relationship. Similarly the Congress can hardly accuse the BJP of having a muddled Pakistan policy when the Punjab chief minister and his colleague cannot see eye to eye on an issue this sensitive.

When I watched Harsimrat Kaur Badal, Hardeep Puri and Navjot Sidhu stand shoulder to shoulder with Imran Khan for the Kartarpur ceremony, I thought of what a powerful image this could have been for their home state. After all when the British drew a knife across India during Partition it was Punjab that was the most scarred. But the absence of a united front and the noise of the domestic political divisions back home shadowed the power of that moment and left India’s internal disagreements exposed.

The ministers and Sidhu should either not have been given sanction to go at all or should have been briefed to confine their comments only to the importance of the corridor for Sikh pilgrims. And instead of vilifying Sidhu, the MEA should have co-opted him and used him as a diplomatic asset.

It could not have been entirely innocuous or coincidental that at the opening ceremony Pakistan singled out Sidhu for praise. Pakistanis seemed to sense the friction between the Akalis and the Congress and may have played to it. Even the introductory video at the Kartarpur event cast Sidhu in starring role. Badal seemed visibly uncomfortable at the strong and visible personal rapport between Khan and Sidhu. From stage she said archly that she had no friends or relatives in Pakistan; she was here at Guru Nanak’s calling.

India’s political fault lines were visible for all to see. Of course this is not to say that Pakistan speaks in one voice or is consistent in its India policy. When Shah Mehmood Qureshi met us in Islamabad, he categorically said: “This is no googly” to emphasise the sincerity of its intentions. A day later at a public function, he did a complete U-turn and boasted that his government had bowled a googly that compelled India to send two ministers to Pakistan.

This boast will rankle India -- as it should. There are many grave and complex issues, led by terrorism, that stand between us and a peace process. But it doesn’t explain the incoherence of our Pakistan policy. And unfortunately the Kartarpur response revealed both a lack of preparedness and cohesion, undermining an otherwise wonderful moment of religious piety and shared history.

Barkha Dutt is a journalist and author

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Nov 30, 2018 17:03 IST