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Modi could have been bolder but definitely was not timid

The prime minister’s surprise visit to Lahore on Christmas day to personally wish Nawaz Sharif happy birthday was a bold and brave act.

columns Updated: Jan 17, 2016 00:47 IST
Prime Minister Narendra Modi,India-Pakistan ties,Nawaz Sharif
PM Narendra Modi’s surprise visit to Lahore on Christmas day to personally wish Nawaz Sharif happy birthday was a bold and brave act.(PIB Handout Photo)

The prime minister’s surprise visit to Lahore on Christmas day to personally wish Nawaz Sharif happy birthday was a bold and brave act. It suggests a dramatic and, I presume, strategic shift in Mr Modi’s thinking about how to tackle India’s six-decade-old problems with Pakistan. That’s why some warmly welcomed the gesture whilst others were sharply critical. It turned on whether they believe a change, in fact, let’s be honest, a reversal of Mr Modi’s thinking was necessary or apostasy.

Mr Modi’s Lahore journey reminded me of Anwar Sadat’s historic decision of 1977 — which, similarly, took the world by surprise — to fly to Jerusalem, address the Knesset and reset Egyptian-Israeli relations. Both decisions were risky and divisive. That was the gamble. But both also showed statesmanship because they were rooted in a willingness to accept mistakes and rethink, change course and try again. That’s why they opened up new horizons and made a second chance possible.

Sadat paid for his visionary act with his life, but Egypt’s relationship with Israel remained on the trajectory he had placed it. Today, it’s a testament to his thinking and many consider it his greatest legacy.

Fortunately, the cost Modi has to face up to is different although no less drastic. He knows that any breakthrough in relations with Pakistan would provoke terror. Just as Kargil followed Vajpayee’s visit to Lahore in 1999 and Mumbai occurred after progress on the back-channel in the mid-2000s so, too, Pathankot succeeded the second Lahore visit.

This was not just expected, it was almost inevitable. Therefore, it would have been — indeed, it had to be — factored into Mr Modi’s thinking before he embarked on his Christmas day gesture.

Of course, it’s one thing to anticipate Pathankot and altogether another to respond appropriately. This is where Mr Modi’s dilemma began because this is where his bravery — as well as his conviction and resolve — was put to the test. This is when he had to either grit his teeth and stand his ground or change his mind.

Which would it be? Or, to put it differently, after the expected and predicted Pathankot attack what were Mr Modi’s options? If he went ahead with the talks he knew he would be accused of back-tracking from his much-trumpeted stand that talks and terror cannot go together. But if he did a U-turn and backed away from his Yuletide initiative many would conclude his Lahore visit was gimmickry and, worse, he lacked conviction or had lost his nerve.

Nawaz Sharif tried to help by acting swiftly and, perhaps, decisively. The investigation, raids and arrests he launched, with the Army and ISI chiefs on board, were a good first step. The arrest of Masood Azhar and his brother would have clinched matters but they were never confirmed. This still left Mr Modi caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Eventually, the prime minister chose to postpone the talks. The Foreign Office spokesperson repeatedly said this was done in a “mutually acceptable manner” and the talks will happen “in the very near future”. I suspect this was the politically easy response because no one explained why the postponement was necessary. But, happily, it keeps the dialogue process alive.

I wish Mr Modi had been a little bolder but I’m thankful he wasn’t more timid. However, this also means I can hope — perhaps, even be confident — he will regain his Christmas form.

The views expressed are personal.

First Published: Jan 16, 2016 22:43 IST