Modi’s Lahore visit: A personal touch helps things along
PM Narendra Modi’s Lahore visit is smart diplomacy but must be followed up by a larger strategy to make relations better with the neighbour in the west as well as the war-torn Afghanistan.editorials Updated: Dec 25, 2015 22:30 IST
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has combined a birthday, Christmas, geopolitics and surprise diplomacy in a single day to leave both supporters and critics befuddled. The unannounced stopover in Lahore ostensibly to celebrate Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s birthday has helped put a personal touch on the past few months of forward movement between India and Pakistan. Nonetheless, gestures like this further national interest only if they are embedded in a larger diplomatic strategy. The evidence of such a strategy lies in Mr Modi’s earlier visit — to Afghanistan — as it does in his Lahore stop. There is a small Great Game behind Mr Modi’s earlier official handing over of the first batch of Indian-supplied helicopter gunships. He signalled India’s interest in upholding the Kabul regime was strong enough to lead it to break a long-standing policy of not providing lethal weaponry to a country in conflict. New Delhi has opposed attempts by Pakistan and the US to negotiate a power-sharing agreement that it sees as little more than an attempt to bring the Taliban to power through the back door. By providing gunships to the Afghan military and, hopefully, more material support to Kabul in the coming years New Delhi is signalling a new chapter in its involvement in Afghanistan’s civil war.
Maintaining a peace process will help restrain the normal Pakistani military response to the provision of gunships to Kabul: Terror attacks on Indian interests in Afghanistan. However, it may be better seen as a two-pronged policy designed to curb Pakistan’s abilities to cause India problems at a time when Mr Modi would prefer to spend time on reforms at home. On one hand, India is proffering olive branches and dialogues to both Mr Sharif and, more importantly, the Pakistani military. This both assuages the peace constituency in both countries and eases international pressure for some sort of bilateral jaw-jaw. On the other, by backing Afghanistan, it further ties down Pakistan in a northwest quagmire. Either way, Rawalpindi’s trouble-making options are reduced.
If the nascent peace process develops a momentum of its own, then Mr Modi is in a position to double-down on his “neighbourhood first” policy. A breakthrough with Pakistan seems highly unlikely, least of all through a powerless Nawaz Sharif, but it should not be forgotten how transformational it would be for India’s economy, society and strategic position. In India-Pakistan relations, a hard-nosed position is always closer to the reality on the ground, but a door should be left open for gestures of peace.