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Modi’s set the bar for talks with Pakistan far too high

The Pakistan envoy's meetings with Hurriyat flow directly from his government’s commitment to the Kashmiri cause. Changing that can only be the outcome of talks, not a precondition, writes Karan Thapar.

columns Updated: Aug 27, 2014 11:01 IST
Narendra Modi,Pakistan high commission,India Pakistan meet

For what it’s worth, I think Narendra Modi has tied himself in knots. Unfortunately, the outcome is not limited to the realisation the prime minister’s Pakistan policy is confused. It’s also dented the belief he’s made a sure-footed and confident start in government. At least for now, this will affect his image.

What Mr Modi overlooked is that the Pakistan high commissioner’s meetings with Hurriyat flow directly from Pakistan’s commitment to moral and diplomatic support for the Kashmiri cause. Therefore to have agreed not to meet Hurriyat would have been tantamount to diluting that commitment. That can only be the outcome of talks. Not the precondition for them.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee understood this. That’s why in 2001 he didn’t object when Gen. Pervez Musharraf met Hurriyat the night before the Agra Summit. This is why Indian governments have accepted — even if they have not liked — visiting Pakistani foreign ministers and foreign secretaries meeting Hurriyat every time they come to India.

The full truth is it’s been happening since 1995, when President Farooq Leghari first met the Hurriyat during Narasimha Rao’s premiership. In other words it’s been Pakistani policy for two decades.

In contrast, the Modi government believes the precedent set in May, when Nawaz Sharif didn’t meet Hurriyat, should have continued. I’m afraid that was too much to expect. And the reason is simple.

The Indian side claims it advised or warned Mr Sharif against meeting Hurriyat in May but in agreeing not to do so he was not giving up Pakistan’s traditional policy but simply making a one-off gesture. This is confirmed by the fact Mr Sharif came for a swearing-in, not for formal talks. The gesture was, therefore, in response to Mr Modi’s generous invitation. Had he come for a more substantive visit he would have definitely met Hurriyat.

The Indian side clearly read too much into this one aspect of the May visit. But that’s their fault. They had no reason to believe Mr Sharif had set a precedent that amounted to diluting — leave aside giving up — a critical element of Pakistan’s well-established policy.

The fact the Modi government jumped to the wrong conclusion suggests two things. Either it overestimates its capacity to enforce new conditions on a politically troubled, if not enfeebled, Pakistani prime minister or it simply hasn’t clearly thought through what signals it’s sending out. The exchange of sarees, shawls and warm letters as well as our foreign secretary’s initiative to fix a date for the meeting would have taken Pakistan down a very different garden path.

Four key points are worth making about India’s decision to call off talks after the Pakistani high commissioner met Hurriyat. First, this might have made sense in the 1990s, when Hurriyat was powerful. Not in 2014, when it’s diminished. Now, paradoxically, it could build up Hurriyat’s image in Kashmiri eyes.

Second, if the government is speaking the truth when it says the Hurriyat meeting — and not the ceasefire violations — scuppered the talks, that suggests a bizarre conclusion: Mr Modi can live with Pakistan shooting our soldiers on the LoC but cannot accept the high commissioner serving tea to Hurriyat!

Third, by making not meeting Hurriyat the condition for future talks Mr Modi has probably set the bar so high talks will not be possible or, at least, easy to schedule.

Finally, this could have wider ramifications throughout our neighbourhood. If they view this as bullying they’re unlikely to welcome it. Worse, it could create a few doubts about Mr Modi himself.

(The views expressed by the author are personal.)

First Published: Aug 23, 2014 22:22 IST